Friday, December 7, 2012

Hakuna Matata

Did you know that the words “Rafiki,” “jambo,” and “hakuna matata” are actually used in Tanzania?  Like, all the time.  At first, I thought it was some sort of conspiracy, but then I realized that The Lion King had to have gotten their cool African lingo from somewhere, and Kiswahili was probably a legit linguistic source.  Anyway, it was really cool being in a country where you greet people with “Jambo” and you throw around “Hakuna Matatas” like it’s nobody’s business. 

I’m too excited, and I need to start over, from the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  In the beginning, there was an elephant.  Until a speeding night bus driving from Arua to Kampala crashed headlong into it.  This is essential for the rest of my rambling story.  The very next day, Tom and I had to get on a bus to Kampala to catch a plane.  Unfortunately, we had purchased tickets for the very same company that had recently become too close with Ugandan wildlife.  We thought, “psshh…buses crash all the time. It can’t affect our trip.”  So that morning we walked to the KKT office and found out that our bus had been canceled.  And all other bus companies had full buses.  As a huge stroke of luck, the KKT company had decided to run ONE bus that day at 1 pm, which we were able to get on.  Little did we know that after that one bus, the company would be forced to close their operations down completely.  So we got really lucky, considering.  We got there in one piece, but our bus had severe issues and halfway into our ride, essentially stopped working.  It would completely turn off every few minutes.  We somehow rolled into Kampala late at night, even with our bus shutting off every few minutes, and then once we were in the dark suburbs of Kampala, the bus decided to break down completely.  We stayed on the bus waiting for them to fix it because we had no idea where we were and didn’t want to traipse around in dark alleys.  Once we got to our hotel, we felt pretty lucky.  And, the next day we went to Entebbe and got on a plane to Zanzibar.  The plane had propellers, which I felt luke-warm about, but it was okay.  The plane stopped at Kilimanjaro airport, and I think we may have seen this allegedly large mountain-looking like Mount Doom shrouded in mist- but when we asked our Tanzanian flight attendant about it, she didn’t really seem to know either.  Then we went to Dar International Airport and I had a hernia.  Why?  Because we were dropped in the middle of this airport as transfers and were told to wait by a desk for someone to take us through a magical transfer hallway that would allow us to forgo going through security and all that again----but 15 minutes before our flight, a really stuck-up airport dude suddenly looked at us scornfully and told us we needed to get our visas there, fill out all these forms, and why hadn’t we done it yet?  I was so mad.  Did I mention that we had asked 5 times before what we were supposed to do and no one helped?  We scribbled out our visas, and tried not to listen to the guy ask me if I was a “crazy mzungu” and “are you sleeping together?”  After all that, we flat out sprinted through the airport, re entered security, and were the last people on the plane. 

I have to interject into my monologue to note that the Tanzanian countryside is BEAUTIFUL and just how I imagined Africa to be.  We were flying low enough to see the Serengeti.  We also flew very low into Zanzibar and the flight only took 20 minutes. 

Okay, so we made it to Zanzibar.  We waited around for our ride for a while.  We had set up to couchsurf with a Dutch girl named Evy, but it wasn’t really a traditional couchsurfing situation. Rather than staying with her in her own home for free, she had hooked us up with a cheap house to stay in (the same as her) where the main guy let out rooms for a low price and all the profits went towards school fees for his children.  In theory, a really cool thing.  In reality, we arrived in Stone Town at night, bedraggled, and were shown our room by the brother of the owner of the house, because the owner and Evy were both away in Madrid? Our room was up two ladders (instead of stairs), the shared bathroom didn’t close or flush nor was there water, and we were just dropped in our room, and left.  We felt so degraded; the whole point of couchsurfing is the spirit of showing someone around a cool place and spending time together, but instead we were just in someone’s attic at night, hungry, thirsty, and with no idea where we were or if it was safe to walk around at night.  Anyway, not a great start.  We made the best of it the next day by getting up early and walking around all day.  And we decided to stop being gypsies and actually book a hotel room for on our way back through Stone town.  There’s no point in courchsurfing if it completely misses the point. 

I’m not going to talk that much about Stone town.  It was really beautiful and chaotic.  Winding alleys, soaring white ottoman architecture, women walking around in fullblown traditional Muslim dress, mangoes and coconuts everywhere…and the ocean of course.  We decided to leave for the beaches pretty much straightaway because we weren’t feeling relaxed in Stone Town.  There are about a million people who come up to you hawking tours, deals, music, and you constantly have to dodge cars inappropriately speeding through the tiny streets.  We have enough of that in Kampala.  At one point, we sat down in a quiet area to watch the sunset over the Indian ocean, and just as it was getting dark, a group of large men with lead pipes in their hands came up to us.  We both swallowed and answered their friendly greetings nervously when they reached us, thinking, “holy crap, so this is how it ends.” Of course, they were just a group of ridiculously friendly men who happened to have lead pipes with them, but all the same…we needed to get out of an urban area. 

Beaches?  Awesome.  Whitest, smoothest sand you have ever seen.  Turquoise, clear water the temperature of a warm Jacuzzi.  Fresh fruit juice everyday.  Local fisherman hauling in sea creatures the size of children. Coconut milk in curries.  Children playing soccer on the beach.  A beer under the full moon.  All in all, two weeks of hanging out on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Funny thing about Zanzibar?  There are Masai EVERYWHERE, walking around in their traditional red cloaks with spears in their hands, hawking jewelry.  (There are also a ton of Rastas and Bob Marley paraphernalia). A lot of them come to Zanzibar for tourism school.  Really friendly, tall, and majestic, but by the end of our time on the beaches, we would literally run away from them when we saw them coming.  Ah, we felt so touristy.  Whenever anyone sees a muzungu in Zanzibar, they go up to them and try to sell massages, jewelry, tours, food, etc. It’s always hard to tell when someone is genuine or not.  It’s a lot different from Arua.  I’m really glad I live in a place completely devoid of tourism.  I think we had worn out our welcome by the time we left, because we had turned down SO many people and offers and ‘cheap deals’, like any good peace corps volunteer should do. 

While we mostly just relaxed by means of doing completely nothing, we decided to do one stupid touristy thing: swimming with dolphins.  We went with a bunch of rastas (literally had livestrong bracelets that said “Rasta Man”) in a little boat and hunted dolphins for a few hours.  They also let us out to snorkel for a while.  It was so goofy though.  I envisioned myself reuniting with the wild as I swam cheek to jowl with a pack of dolphins into the great deep.  Instead, we flew across the choppy sea hunting down dolphins, our captain exchanging news about their whereabouts with other boats filled with tourists, and then finally all the boats converged on them at once.  The minute we saw the dolphins skim the surface, everyone would start running, gun their engines, and speed right ahead of the dolphins and yell (or push) at us to jump off the boat right into their path!  So, what it looked like was this: A navy seals operation gone horribly wrong with 10 boats of tourists wearing snorkels and swim suits jumping off speeding boats right on top of dolphins (a lot of them belly-flopping) and then spending a few bewildered moments trying to look down under and see them.  In my case, after jumping off a boat in snorkel-gear at high speed, I would be much too excited and full of adrenaline to do anything useful, and would instead just bob around in the huge waves and nearly drown as I looked around me frantically for dolphins.  I DID manage to see them under me one of the times I jumped off.  Pretty awesome.  There was one boat full of really sophisticated looking European tourists who were fully clothed and wielding cameras who just looked at us with complete disdain during this spectacle. I guess they just wanted good pictures, and not to belly flop on a flock of dolphins?  I choose to leave you with this image of me in Zanzibar; snorkels on, nearly-drowning, and hyperventilating as I look for dolphins. 

Our travel back to Uganda went smoothly.  We left after a final two days in Stone town, in which we saw the Arab Fort, went on a spice tour, and visited the old Slave Chambers under the cathedral we were staying in.  We might have seen Kilimanjaro, which brings it to two times that we maybe saw the biggest mountain in the world.  All in all, a success.  We both had a growing worry in our stomach about our travel back to ARua, but neither of us could put word to it.  The presentiment turned out to be spot-on.  Again, it all starts with one elephant.  Because of this elephant, KKT had completely shut down because they had to pay back the wildlife authorities the FULL cost for the elephant that they killed.  I think it came to like 300 million shillings?  So, they probably won’t open for a long time.  And because KKT is one of four bus companies that goes from Kampala to Arua (really three, because one company overturns more frequently than it doesn’t), it had put a bit of stress on the transport situation. Not to mention that at this time of year, the school year has just ended, and EVERYONE is trying to get home to their villages for Christmas.  Long story short, the buses were all booked for days.  Even the awkward buses that leave at weird times, and the companies that you never really would take.  ALL BOOKED.  I was in a weird situation where I was DESPERATE to get on a bus home and was willing to do wild things to get on a California bus-which is certainly saying a lot.  So our options were: 1. stay in Kampala for an indefinite period of time and watch our bank accounts drop and despair accumulate 2. pay 1 million dollars for a private hire  3. pay 1 million dollars to take a plane  or 3. tear out our hair and set our clothes on fire.  Turns out there was a fourth option that we exercised the following morning.  Namely, bribery.  So thanks to some extra shillings delivered in a firm handshake, Tom got us two seats on a Gaagaa bus to Arua!  And although our bus DID break down in the middle of the game park in the formerly most dangerous area for LRA  bus abductions, we made it!  While on the road, we were passed by no less than 4 other gaagaa buses coming from Kampala that had left hours later than us.  

I don’t really like to talk about what happened when we got back to the village, because it’s still sort of happening right now…too soon, you know?  The truth: we came home to a thriving and gigantic bee hive in our kitchen.  You may be thinking, ‘oh hey, but can’t you peacefully coexist and all that?’ but I’m telling you that it doesn’t work that way.  I live in a small, damp cave and currently (although it’s getting better) I am sharing this cave with thousands of angry African-killer bees.  And I can’t get into my kitchen to cook or get water or do any other normal human thing.  The situation is improving, but I can tell you that Tom and the kids next door spent the better part of yesterday engaging in guerilla warfare.  There was smoke, there was fire, there was ritual humiliation, there was hot water, there was a whole strategy to it.  And I hate the idea of killing or harming these bees but they keep on coming back.  Just now they are reentering our kitchen.  But, there are some good memories I guess.  Like when the kids removed the honey comb and ate it.  Or when Flavia dressed up in a cloak, motorcycle helmet, and gardening gloves, to run and firebomb the bees. 

I’m exhausted. 

Love and Lobsters,


  1. Oh no! Ilse! Tell Flavia that she is a brave soul.

  2. Ilse, I'm interested in connecting with PC in Uganda. Can you provide me with your email address so that I can send you more information? You can email me at

    Thanks, Matt