Friday, April 30, 2010

Sunset at Bujagali Falls

Did you know that the source of the Nile is in Uganda?  In the southeast corner of Uganda is Lake Victoria, and that's where the Nile begins (officialy, it's the Victorian Nile, part of what is called the White Nile, until it reaches Kahrtoum, in Sudan.  Then it's just the Nile).  It's strange to think about, because everything I know about the Nile involves papyrus and pyramids, and it's hard to imagine it anywhere outside of Egyptian culture.  Which is silly - it's the longest river in the world.  Obviously it can't be contained to the history of one country.

The sun is setting when we drive up to Bujagali Falls.  It's an interesting effect - look one way, and the sky is as blue as it was this afternoon.  Look the other, and the sky is alight with reds, yellows, and oranges.  It's to late for anyone to be on the river, but coming here we passed many signs saying "Nile Expedition!  Raft Bujagali!"  Maybe some other time.

There are no barriers between us as the water, just a single sign warning us not to get too close.  The only thing keeping us from being swept away is our own good sense.  I find that a lot in Uganda, the reliance on human instinct and the ability to know better.  You don't see much of that in America - even the tamest of rivers in our state parks have trails and signs directing away from the water's edge.  It's so safe now.  Like a license to act recklessly.  Not here, though.  I stand as close as I dare, and watch the water rush past my feet.

When the sun sets the warmth of the day goes with it, and we are all very hungry.  We say goodbye to Bujagali Falls. 

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From the Outside

I no longer remember the name of this cathedral, nor the region of France that it can be found.   I only know that it's near the Swiss boarder.  If you recognize it, please inform me. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Tower

We can see it from the airport window, and our chaperones tell us, "We're going there first."  I'm sure they did that on purpose - take us to this thing that is so quintessentially, so iconically French right away to get it out of our system.  Wouldn't want us wandering the Louvre, or strolling through the streets of Montmarte thinking, "This is nice, but when are we going to the Eiffel Tower?"

We haven't even checked in to our hotel when we pull up next to it; our bags are still sitting in the belly of the bus.  Our guide hands us our tickets as we file off the bus, with a warning not to lose them, or we won't be able to get on the elevator that takes us to the observation deck at the top of the tower.  We all clutch our tickets tightly - we don't want to miss this.
It's so tall.  I've seen taller buildings, but the openness of the tower and the air around it makes it loom in the way American skyscrapers can't when they're surrounded by tall buildings.

Surrounding the base of the tower are men who Sell.  Cheap trinkets, stolen goods, and designer knock-offs, all spread out on blankets that can be gathered quickly if the police come around.  We call them Blanket Men, and we will see them everywhere.  There's equipment set up for some kind of photo shoot just beyond the line we're standing in, licensed sellers and their carts piled high with little statuettes and coffee mugs with Gustave Eiffel's face on them.  And of course, armed militia.   

There's a cry from the far leg of the tower, and a Blanket Man takes off running with a uniformed guard hot on his heels.  He nearly catches him - as he reaches out to grab the back of the Blanket Man's shirt, his foot slides out from under him, and he hits the gravel.  The Blanket Man jumps the fence, and the crowd goes wild. 

From the top of the tower, the city sprawls.  Rues and avenues spiderweb as far as the eye can see, and even from up here we can see that traffic is a mess (until I get to Uganda, Paris will be the most terrifying traffic experience I have ever had, even if our bus could easily crush anything in our way).

There are grey clouds on the horizon, and the wind up here cuts right through our lightweight jackets, and while we're all so excited to be here in this place seeing this city, we kind of want to get back down where it's a little warmer.  We have another three days in Paris, and the Eiffel Tower will stand strong wherever we go.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tongolo, Part Two

The meeting happens without me.  I'm not bothered - it's not really my meeting, anyway.  Malia sits in my lap and eats roasted corn off the cob while Judy, Elizabeth, and Lillian present their case to the chief.  They have to prove that Malia is better in Judy's care before the chief will agree to help them, and while they've brought a "before" picture, but it's not the definitive proof they were hoping it would be.  The little girl in my lap does not look at all like the little girl in the photograph.  That girl's little shoulders are hunched from scoliosis, and her little belly is distended from hunger, and her skin is drawn tight across her bones.  The girl in my lap has a straight back, and her little belly sticks out because it's full of food, and her arms and legs are the opposite of stick-thin.  The chief points to the girl in the picture and says, "How do I know that this is not a picture of some other child?"  But when Judy points to the matching scars, he says, "I will sign your papers."

There are other signatures needed, signatures only a chief can get, so we leave the meeting with the chief's cell phone number and a promise to return next week.

Elizabeth tells us that we must go to Tongolo B - there is a woman there with a sick son, and while Elizabeth is no doctor, she knows enough about various symptoms to advise.  She says it'll be a bit of a trek.  I'm glad I wore good shoes.  I wish I had brought more sunscreen.

We have to cross a stream to get to Tongolo B.  A small group of boys are there filling up their jerrycans, and they wave at us as we go by.  They end up behind us, laughing with each other in Lugandan.  I turn to the boy behind me.

"May I take your picture?"  He sets down his jerrycan and smiles brightly.

I turn my camera around to show him, and the boys all gather to see how good he looks in pictures.  

When we reach Tongolo B, a woman comes running out of her hut, waving excitedly.  She wants to show Elizabeth the squash she's grown.  It's a large squash, and she's proud of it, but a bit confused as well - she's never seen a squash before, and doesn't know what to do with it.  She tries to gift it to Elizabeth, who refuses.  "You can sell it to me, if you want," she tells the woman, "but I'm going to give it back to you."  Both women seem satisfied with that.

"I keep telling them to not give me their food," she says when we start walking again.  "They might be ignoring me."

The boy in Tongolo B has Malaria.  Elizabeth tells his mother that it's absolutely treatable, but she must bring him down to the clinic as soon as possible, and they will give her the medicine she needs.  The woman agrees, but Elizabeth tells her again, just to be sure.

Walking back to the car I spy a little girl watching us from a hill.  I wave at her.  She runs away.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Krohn Butterflies

Butterfly sculptures line the gardens of Eden Park in downtown Cincinnati, calling us to Krohn Conservatory.  They've recently opened their seasonal exhibit, "Butterflies of Japan," and apparently, it is the place to be.  The line has wrapped around the front of the building by the time my mother and I reach it, and I overhear a volunteer cheerfully tell another patron that "it's only a thirty minute wait" from where they're standing.  Someone's Japanese club stands at the entrance of the conservatory to serenade us.  They sing "Sukiyaki," a song I remember from my own days learning high school Japanese.  I don't remember any of the words, but I do know it's a sad song about a love lost, and it's named after a hot pot dish.  Delicious.

We are so excited when we finally reach the door, only to discover that we are not yet at the exhibit.  The line extends through the cactus room,

the orchid room,

and the bonsai room.

Everyone wants to see these butterflies.  It's a good mix of parents, grandparents, small children, and young people.  A twenty-something hipster in a yellow t-shirt stands in front of us and makes lazy jokes about the wait.

It's glass separating the bonsai room from the butterfly room, and while most of what we can see is people moving slowly around the garden, a ripple of excitement moves through the small cluster of us waiting at the door every time a butterfly flits past the windows.  The volunteer attending the door waits for a nod of approval from inside, and finally lets us into the long-awaited butterfly room.

It's packed.  The room is designed to resemble a tranquil Japanese garden, but we can't quite see the landscaping through the bodies.  It's not easy to move through - everyone is standing very still and speaking in very hushed tones, trying to lure a butterfly close enough for a good picture.

Fortunately, there are butterflies in abundance.  Little white ones that hop from flower to flower.  Orange ones that fly between the leaves of the citrus trees.  Monarchs.  Spotted ones that helpfully pose with their wings laid flat.  Once or twice we find ourselves ducking out of the path of a large butterfly with brilliant blue wings.  Young and old, everyone gently lifts their hand towards oncoming fliers, silently wishing, "Choose me.  Land here." 

A tired-looking volunteer with a big wicker basket offers us a silk flower.  "They're attracted to the color," she explains.  I decline, but Mother takes a purple sunflower and holds it straight up in the air.  The hipster stumbles past us with his own flower, drawing attention to himself by acting like a child.

We could stay and watch the butterflies all day, but the air is thick and the room is cramped, and knowing there is more to see, Mother and I decide to move on.  With one last look back, I see the hipster delicately raise his hand to a passing butterfly.

Stepping out of the claustrophobic bubble of the butterfly room is a relief.  The rest of the conservatory is much more breathable - two long wings filled to the brim with tropical trees, plants, and flowers.  As we walk to the end of the room with a waterfall, we pass a sign that says, "Look up!  We have bananas!" 

And indeed they did.  Butterflies and bananas - what more could you ask for?

Learn more about Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park and their website.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tongolo, Part One

Today we go to Tongolo, the part of Africa you would expect to find in a National Geographic spread.  My Aunt Judy must go to this village to appeal to the chief, hoping that he will fill out the paperwork she needs to begin the process of adopting her daughter, Malia.  Normally these papers are signed by the child's parents, but Malia's mother and father are no longer around.  They aren't dead, just "away," - there's the unspoken understanding that the people of Tongolo know exactly where the child's parents are, and are keeping quiet for their protection.  Abandoning a child is illegal, and if either parent is found, they would absolutely be jailed for it.  There is a man who claims to be an uncle in the village, and we will need his signature as well.

We drive to the village on what must be the second worst road in Uganda*.  It's a holiday, a holy day, and the villagers we pass are dressed in their finest, walking to and from their worshiping places.  "Most of the children in the villages have never seen a white person," I am told before we leave, "so they will either run away from you, or they'll run at you and ask you for something."  None of the children have run away, yet.  They run alongside the road in their dresses and slacks, smiling and hollering and waving at our car.  One little girl wears a red dress two sizes too big, and she can hardly contain herself when she sees our car.  She can't be older than four or five, and she runs the way a child does; she's so excited she can only just control her limbs, and she's picking her knees up higher as if that will make her go faster.  She waves her arms as hard as she can as she cries, "Mzungu!  Jambo!"  Mzungu meaning "white person," Jambo meaning "hello."

(A note about Ugandan roads and traffic from an American perspective.  In theory, they drive on the left.  In reality, the dirt roads have been so damaged by pot holes and erosion that they drive on whatever side is going to do the least amount of damage to the undercarriage of their cars.  Sometimes that's the left side, sometimes that's the right, and sometimes that 's right down the middle, oncoming traffic be damned.  The more metropolitan areas may be in better condition, but are no safer to drive on.  Traffic laws are little more than courteous suggestions, and there's no right-of-way privilege for pedestrians or cyclists, just the assumption that they know better than to get hit by a car.  But I didn't see or hear of a single accident in the time I was there, so they must have found a method to the madness.)     

We've been led to the village by Elizabeth, the woman who found Malia and placed her into my aunt's care.  Elizabeth acts as a social worker for Tongolo and the surrounding villages, an America woman who's made it her job to help floundering villages prosper.  Her visit today has two purposes - to join our visit with the chief, and check in on the progress of her work.  She's been showing the villagers how to plant and care for personal and communal gardens, teaching them to grow vegetables that they can either eat or take down to the market to sell.

Elizabeth speaks little Lugandan, and the villagers speak little English, so her friend and co-worker Lillian has come with us, and when the villagers come to see us, she makes the introductions.  I say they came to see us, but really, they came to see Malia, and some can hardly believe their eyes.  How different she must look from the little girl with stick-thin legs and the crooked back who left them only months ago.  Now she looks healthy, and happy, and most importantly, loved.  And when I say everyone comes, I mean everyone comes.  Mothers, children, men who may or may not be uncles, and they all touch her face and hold her hands and try to make her smile, and I think, "Where was this warmth when she was thrown to the street and you heard her cry?" 

Some of the houses are square and made of brick, some of the houses are round and made of mud. Some have painted pictures on the outer walls, telling you who lives there with some decorative flair. We saw at least one herd of cattle (I still don't know if we saw more than one herd, or the same herd more than once), many people had goats (and some baby goats) tied up outside of their homes.  My aunt and I have taken Malia down the hill a ways to see where the pigs are kept, two huge, muddy beasts fighting for shade under the trees.  There is an engine roar above us, and one of the might-be-an-uncles calls us back up the hill.  The chief has just arrived on his motorcycle, and now it is time to talk.   

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Search of the Urbana Bread Loaf

If I have one regret about living in this day and age, it's that novelty is no longer embraced by the general public.  Nothing exists just to exist anymore.  Everything has to have purpose and relevance, and "kitsch" is a four letter word.  Yes, roadside attractions are still around, but they're much harder to find, and if you do find them, the quality is suspect, because who wants to maintain the biggest ball of twine in Oklahoma when no one wants to come see it?  Now novelty and whimsey is left to the internet, the red-headed step-child of pop culture - easier to access by far, but somehow less special, and infinitely less permanent.  So when I heard from Roadside America that not twenty minutes from my house was a giant, fiberglass bread loaf, I knew we were meant to be together.

I nearly missed it - the loaf isn't where you can easily see it.  It's in the loading dock of the American Pan Company, back away from the street.  That picture up there?  I'm as zoomed in as my camera will go.  There was no one in the lot who saw me standing there, and for a brief moment, I thought I could run up to the loaf for a better picture, but the sign just beyond the entry gate threatened me with surveillance cameras.  Not wanting to ruin a clean record for the sake of a bread loaf, I backed off.

A privacy wall of chicken wire and bushes separated American Pan's property from the apartment complex next door.  It's spring, and not all the leaves have sprung on these bushes, so I trolled along the property line, feeling like a delinquent and hoping for a clean shot through the wall, Pyramus with a digital camera, trying to reach my fiberglass Thisbe.  The results were mixed.

The only thing I know for sure about the loaf is that it is in some way tied to Montgomery Alabama.  The paint has peeled away to the point where the brand name is pretty much unreadable.  The slogan along the bottom is halfway in tact - I figured out that the bread is meant for a type of child - roll child?  Gnoll child?  Moll child?  I could not tell you.  I could have stayed in those bushes all day, trying to decipher the faded writing, but I could practically hear the neighbors reporting a creepy bush-peeper to a 911 dispatcher, and I'm pretty sure there were snakes in those bushes.

All in all, the trip was a bit of a wash.  I had hoped for some good old fashioned roadside Americana, but it was not to be.

Of course, the biggest tragedy here is the massive missed marketing opportunity.  I mean, come on, American Pan.  You're American Pan!  You make baking pans!  Pan is Bread!  

Then again, I left my car in the empty lot in front of the abandoned Big Bear Bakery and Delicatessen, so maybe Urbana just hates bread.