Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

First Taste

As a volunteer fund raising consultant for Conservation Through Public Health, my assignment was to travel to the remote mountain villages of southwestern Uganda to interview the staff that are providing direct conservation and health services. My goal was to tell the people’s story of need and opportunity in such a way as to inspire giving. Early in the 14 hour drive to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, chaperoned by three of my new colleagues from work, I experienced Uganda life outside the city.

Tugging at my curiosity, footpaths wound through untamed hills and villages, circled hand-tilled subsistence farming plots, and wove through exotically shaped pine clusters. Deep red soil contrasted smartly with green vegetation, yet seemed repelled by the pretty white party dresses of young girls. Sprawling and incongruously well-groomed tea plantations divulged the well-funded influence of outsiders.

Everywhere, people walked. Children large and small lugged differently-sized jerry cans to collect the family’s daily supply of water from community pumps or streams. Women with babies strapped to their back made their way to market balancing weekly harvests-for-sale on their head. Businessmen in suit coats walked with purpose to their next appointment. Cattlemen and their four-legged companions hoisting comically long horns grazed inches from speeding traffic. Untethered goats, chickens, and dogs wandered into our route. Hunting, carnivorous Malibu Storks eyed all the activity from perches directly overhead.

Trucks of all shapes and sizes belched goliath-sized plumes of black smoke as they passed. Motorcycles known as “Boda Bodas” invented new lanes as they zipped passengers without helmets or common sense. Alternatively, bicycles-for-hire carried 1-2-3-4 passengers at once. Bicycles as carts supported pyramids of green bananas—matoke—stacked taller and wider than Michelangelo’s sketched man. Bicycles with loads jutting precariously sideways into the street transported four foot long sticks for construction projects, rolls of foam mattresses, old-fashioned milk cans, five foot sacks of charcoal harvested from shrinking forests (to fuel the meals of urban residents), and eight foot bouquets of sugar cane.

Our driver zigzagged around animate and inanimate obstacles all the while avoiding swimming pool sized pot holes. Speed bumps known locally as “sleeping policemen” created a nauseating break-acceleration rhythm to our movement. After a time, the tarmac disappeared completely leaving dirt roads textured like rocky river beds. Forward progress required use of the left lane (as is expected in this former British colony), the right lane, or either shoulder. Further, it necessitated an inexhaustible use of the car’s horn. Our tactical advantage was the fact that we could go 40 miles per hour day or night. People, livestock, and wildlife alike were motivated to give us clearance.

At about 10:30 am, our driver pulled to the side of the road and shut off the engine. Not speaking Bugandan, I was the only one in our party clueless as to what was happening. Immediately, we were swarmed by people holding plates of cooked food: roasted plantains and various meats on sticks. Looking past them, I could see the food was prepared low to the ground on barbeques constructed from retired automobile wheels. I asked an associate to buy for me something that she would like. Quickly, she negotiated a purchase and put a hot cassava into my hands.

At first bite, I noticed its pleasant potato-like flavor coupled with its exceptionally dry texture. I swallowed and the food went partly down my throat and stopped with a scraping sensation. To help push along the first bite, I took a second and swallowed. This caused not one but two wood-chip-like lumps to get lodged in my esophagus. While I could still breathe with ease, the discomfort in my throat was terrific. My body took immediate action. A voice of ancient wisdom rose to my consciousness saying, “don’t worry Heather, I know what to do!” Instantly, to help lubricate passage, the spit glands in my mouth began squirting large quantities of fluid for me to swallow. As a Plan B, my stomach began its preparation to push the cassava wood chips back up. I feared the worst: hurling on the dashboard in front of my new colleagues within seconds of eating the food so graciously purchased on my behalf. I did my best to act normal and not draw attention. Seconds passed like hours as the claws of fiber made their way to my belly. Somehow, I managed to avoid an international incident and no one was the wiser.

As evening approached, the human and livestock traffic didn’t let up despite the fact that there was no electrical service or street lights. The roads and houses were very dark. Boda Bodas with passengers still traveled at great speeds but without turning on their headlamps. I found myself wondering why a woman felt compelled to walk her goat on a leash after 9:30 at night. As we drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park, human traffic was joined by wildlife; a hunting lioness and a family of elephants were captured in our headlights. We arrived at camp adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at 10:30 that night. Rattled by “shaken baby syndrome” from the journey, I was greeted by the cook, housekeeper, and waiter—gentlemen that would serve me (and only me) for the next five days. They led me through the jungle to my private tent announcing: “diner will be served in 10 minutes.”

In the morning, I woke with the village before sunrise to the sound of drums.

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