1.28.2007

Uganda, Day 1: Arrival Into The Country

It was with no expectations and an unusual calm that I landed in Uganda. After an exhausting day of travel, I couldn't even wrap my brain around any thoughts of what Uganda was going to be like. I wasn't naive enough to buy into all the Africa stereotypes of wild animals running around all over the place, as if just being in Africa was a wild safari ride nor any of the other common stereotypes that people often have of Africa. Many people I know in the States were surprised that there were colleges in Uganda as if every country in Africa was still 100 years behind the world. One topic that quickly got brought up within our group was what people at home thought of Africa. One great example is when I was asked by a co-worker (I'll kindly refine from pointing out any more specifics of this co-worker that would reveal his identity) where I went and I responded that I went to Uganda, his face scrunched up in thought and he asked, without any shame, "Wait, is that like in South America or Africa or something?" Of course I responded politely that it was in Africa, but one of my favorite co-workers didn't stop himself from giving my ignorant co-worker a "are you retarded" look, finally bringing my ignorant co-worker to shame. It seems a common theme for people in America to think of Africa as one big country. Considering that I'm going to Europe soon, I've noticed the difference of telling people you're going to Europe versus going to Africa. When you tell people you're going to Europe, you immediately get the question as to what countries you'll be going to. I truly cannot remember one person asking me what country I was going to when I told people I was going to Africa. Perhaps that's a mixture of people knowing less about Africa then Europe, and also due to the fact that so many people travel to Europe and they want to see if you're going to where they've been, but I still feel that there is the perception prevalent in our country that does not distinguish between the countries in Africa. I can tell you for a fact that nearly everyone I spoke to had no idea where Uganda was in Africa.

Coming into Uganda knowing the perceptions and prejudices that many Westerners have entered African countries with, I was determined to have a completely open mind. With my first step off the plane, I was already in love with the country. Looking across the landscape of Uganda felt like I was breathing in beauty with my eyes. I was in awe of it all and also in awe of the fact that I was there, drinking it all in in person. A dream since high school finally realized. Perhaps I'd expected some life changing moment as soon as I stepped off of the plane, perhaps I expected rays of light to shoot from the sky to reveal some holy revelation to me, but I felt odd feeling so normal in Uganda. I still cared that my hair was flipping out weird with this odd kink where I slept on it on the plane. I was still conscious of making friends in the group and feeling my every fault and oddity like a sharp stone sticking into my side. I was still me even though I was in this different country, I didn't magically transform into something much more inspiring or amazing, all the images I had of myself being adventuress and selfless traveling across the world to give myself to others were evaporated. I was still frumpy little me, yes I wanted to help and give to others, but I also still cared about myself in the ways that normal people do. I still wanted to have fun and to have things for myself, to feel pretty and liked and to be accepted. Perhaps it was finally time to accept that I am not Mother Teresa as much as I wish I could be so selfless, and I as I think of this I think it's humorous to me that many athletes perhaps will idealize people like Michael Jordon and their talent, while I idealize Mother Teresa and her complete selflessness. I truly am a non-profit nerd.

Kampala is as bustling of a city as I've ever seen! I've been to New York, Chicago, San Francisco and those are busy cities, but Kampala is bustling! People are always on the move, and so many people too! Rushing around, cars, matatus, bodas all driving ridiculously close to each other, so close that you could pick each others' noses. Poor children follow you around with their hands outstretched saying "hello" and "sar" to any mzungu ("white person" in Swahili) who walks by and they just about break your heart as they wave at you, but you almost can't even look at them because then they'll follow you around for a couple of streets. Traveling through Kampala is exciting and bewildering all at once, and I know I've complained about the potholes in previous posts, but let me just tell you, the potholes are insane. I cannot believe the conditions of the roads in Uganda and am now more than happy to pay for taxes that go into our road maintenance! The fact that there are potholes the size of small cars that vehicles literally have to drive around is just ridiculous! Oh, and by the way, if you ever travel to Uganda, FYI, they pretty much ONLY take Visa. Yeah, I have no Visa credit cards to my name, only Master Card and American Express. And if you only have $20 dollar bills, they charge you $2-3 for ever $20 dollar bill just to convert it to shillings. Funny thing is that I had $50 and $100 dollar bills (which did not have a conversion fee) but I broke them just for the trip because I thought it wouldn't be a good idea to be carrying around big bills like that. So I had to rely on my fellow Americans who did have Visa cards to get money out for me and trade so I didn't have to pay the conversion fee.

We met the Kampala participants right away on our first day, after dropping our stuff off in our rooms. I'll never forget the nervousness of meeting all of them, worrying whether they'd like me or not, how we would get along, what we'd talk about. I was very conscious of their culture and hoped I didn't unintentionally insult anybody because of my ignorance on some cultural nuance. But immediately as the Ugandans came into the dining hall and introduced themselves to me I felt their warmth and friendship. As I got to know everyone's very differing personalities I also learned some of my favorite nuances about their culture. How people say "sorr-ah" for just about anything bad that may happen to you whether or not it's their fault, it's so sweet, thoughtful and genuine. How whenever someone begins speaking in a big group setting, such as asking a question of one of our speakers, he or she starts with "Thank you very much honorable minister" before even thinking of uttering their question. The endless politeness and thoughtfulness of the people I've met in Uganda is inspiring and warmed my heart immensely and coming back to America, especially to such a cold and uninviting city such as Cincinnati (I will tell you for a fact Minnesota held much friendlier people) has been a harsh harsh jolt to my heart.

My first day in Uganda was an exhausting and busy day that ended up feeling like at least two days rather than one. Near the end when we traveled as a group to the internet and I was able to chat on G-chat with my hubby I had realized that I'd been so busy that I hadn't been able to miss him yet, as funny as that sounds. Chatting with him made me feel that slight sting, but I was able to walk it off and breath in the dusty Uganda air and live in the moment, something I've struggled endlessly to do in America. Despite the very starchy, bland food, the rusty toilets without seats, the rock hard and squeaky beds, somehow I felt at home. I was rather shocked at how quickly I adjusted to the living conditions that I wasn't used to. I was surrounded by people who thought like I did and refused to live in the American suburban bubble and who chose to see the world's pain as their own pain. I was surrounded by a culture built on helping each other and full of warmth and love. I was more home than I'd ever been before because it was the home I'd always dreamed about. And from my very first day in Uganda, I knew it'd always be my second home, next to the one I was born into. The home that I'll always go back to and that has ingrained itself as a seed in my soul that will grow and grow until it is just as much apart of me as the home I was born in.

6 comments:

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Wonderful post.

"my second home..." - What an interesting way to feel about a place as far away and exotic as Uganda.

I felt like that when I went to Costa Rica.

Anonymous said...

Now that's about as real of a post as I've ever read. Kudos to you for putting yourself out there and challenging the notions that Americans only care about themselves and the tiny world within their local community. As humans evolve the world is becoming smaller and smaller with technological advancements and globalized economies. It's great to see someone who goes out there to help level the playing field for those less fortunate. You will have a full and rewarding life by pursuing equality.

mai wen said...

Hey Elizabeth, thank you. Funny, Uganda didn't really feel exotic to me, it felt very familiar in an odd way. I guess that's why it felt like home to me. I can't really explain why it felt so familiar, all I can guess is that I was meant to be there and so it felt right.

Thank you anonymous for your comments and your insights. I agree about your comments about technology advancements and globalized economies and I really hope that my efforts will make a difference.

Brett Battles said...

I had a similar experience and feeling when I visited Vietnam in 1999. I can't wait to get back there!

Looking forward to reading about the rest of your journey!

mai wen said...

I just started reading the part in your book that takes place in Vietnam! Loving it so far and really excited to get into the international part of the story!! I love love the first scene in Vietnam with the little boy trying to take the suitcase, I could see it perfectly.

When are you going back?

Lisa R-S said...

A wonderful post. The start to a wonderful adventure. I look forward to the next one.

 

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