Uganda, it is hard to imagine this place without images of Idi Amin coming to mind or past tribulations of war and destruction.
But, as is usual, my concepts formed from the minimal amount of bad news that seeps out of Africa is not based in a total picture of reality.
Uganda is a country rich in people's kindness and humor, rich in wildlife with thick green forest and savannahs.
Landing in Kampala is like landing into a massive traffic jam in the middle of LA. Except here it is a free-for-all of mini buses and mopeds called boda-bodas. Boda-boda is slang for border to border, created during the days when smuggling goods into the country was the norm.
Eager to leave the large city, out of the generosity of a couple of researchers, I accept an invitation to view the research facilities of Makerere University Biological Field Station in Kibale National Park.
Innocent Rwego, a veterinarian who has done extensive research on gorillas and Sarah Paige, a graduate student from the University of Washington were in the first stages of the Kibale Ecohealth Project. This project is designed to look at cross exposure of diseases between wildlife, domestic animals and humans.
Our large Greyhound-like bus races quickly down the highway, passing banana trees and small dark red brick homes, too fast, I think to myself, for the amount of hills and narrow roadway. Sitting up front, I watch the driver swerve around various animals and slower moving vehicles, driving on the left hand side of the road. Uganda is a former British colony, so left hand drive is the norm. This practice that I have difficulty with, even today. When crossing the street, I often forget to look several times, because the traffic pattern is different. More then once I have barely dodged becoming road kill.
Popping over a hill at breakneck speed I see a stream of African cattle moving across the road, “no way” I say to myself, as I thought about our ability to stop in time. All I could do is sit there and watch, as the large brown animals with huge horns come closer to the white bus until, thud, we plow through them.
The bus pulls over; everyone piles out to look at the dead cows, probably someone's life savings, and then back onto the bus we go. I walk by the front of the bus to glance where the impact happened, not even a scratch on the cast iron bars that surround the front end. I'm left with a sense this isn't the first time.
We jump off the bus in Fort Portal and pour into a taxi that takes us down a red dirt roads buttressed by farmland until we finally come to the gate of the park. Tea plantations and banana tress are suddenly replaced by thick forest and dense undergrowth.
The research station rents me a bed in a small room. As the nighttime envelopes the park, I step outside into the open space, crank my head upwards to see the Milky Way in its full glory, as the sound of various wild animals fill my ears, saying quietly out load to myself, “This is much better than car horns and boda-bodas.”
My visit is bittersweet, I thoroughly enjoy watching the research students, and the conversations we have about the aspects of their projects. Being a biology student, I am left with a sense of a path I chose not to follow. Many of the people I visit with remind me of students I once went to college with, and the hours we spent on field trips collecting data at Wayne State College in Nebraska. Part of the magic of travel is coming to terms with our own personal journey.
I went for a long walk on my last day in the park, alone, but not really alone, because the trees were filled with monkeys of various types, colors and sizes.
With butterflies and monkeys watching over me, I lay down in a green patch of something and took a nap. As I drift off, a question passes through my mind, where can you take a nap in the jungle and the only sounds you hear are that of nature?