White Man, Wild West
Most travelers visit the western part of Uganda to see its national parks and wild animals. For the locals, it seems that fair-skinned cyclists are a far more interesting spectacle…
“Why do mzungu have no space in front of teeth?” Dave asked us, the proprietor of a small community camp south of Queen Elizabeth National Park. As we tried to explain orthodontia, including gestures to reinforce the mechanics of braces, it all seemed kind of ridiculous. How did the straightening of smiles come to be an almost requisite part of American adolescence anyway? Dave said he’d seen some white people with braces but thought they were just some sort of mouth decoration. Dave is not Karamojong, an ethnic minority who live in north eastern Uganda, so I’m guessing that mouth adornment isn’t something he sees on a regular basis. Nevertheless, when greeted by a smiling set of bedazzled pearly whites, I’m sure Dave is nothing less than polite. Unfortunately, everyone can’t exhibit the same degree of decorum in the face of absurdity.
Neither Gin nor I are currently sporting dental decorations, but there must be something about us that’s at least equally as odd to the people in the small villages through which we pedal. As a matter of respect, we try to greet the people we pass on the road. Standard salutations are usually exchanged. Then, the laughter starts. Every once in awhile, there’s a little crying mixed into the chorus accompanied by the more rare open-jawed, wide-eyed stare. On one occasion I queried a middle aged woman as to why her children were doubled over in belly-laughter. She responded, “… they’ve never seen a mzungu, it is very entertaining for them.” I guess it’s not just who we are and what we look like that creates such a stir. It’s where we are. We’re not inside the television, where we belong. We’re riding crazy bicycles through these people’s villages, sometimes even their yards. The analogy I’ve used to try and appreciate the experience is this: I am to the unexposed Ugandan what a Leprechaun strolling through an American neighborhood would be to me. After all, I’m oddly sized – most Ugandans are fairly short in stature. I wear funny clothes – no one wears shorts in this country, unless their pant legs have just disintegrated. I clearly have some sort of magical powers – or at least a bicycle that looks like it came from another planet. And there’s a very good chance that there’s at least a small bag of gold in my pockets.
We’re not inside the television, where we belong. We’re riding crazy bicycles through these people’s villages, sometimes even their yards.
There is always an audience here. Since leaving Uganda’s relatively flat interior, we’ve been riding a series of endless hills, which means we’re often in first, second, or third gear… speeds that can easily be matched by children. We’ve gotten pretty adept at carrying on conversations, no matter how winded we may be from climbing. Once in a while the kids are equally gasping for air as they frantically run alongside us, sometimes for miles. They just can’t seem to get enough of the traveling spectacle that is us. Sometimes it’s like we’re the Pied Piper, taking on new children as we pass from village to village, until the fever pitch builds to a clan of thirty or forty. Eventually, we reach a fast downhill and bid our goodbyes.
The same goes for the boda-boda drivers. The bodas are inexpensive Chinese motorcycles with elongated seats that carry as many as 5 passengers, some of whom may be goats, at a time. Sometimes a boda driver will leave his spot in the cue of drivers waiting under the shade of a tree and waste precious fuel just to ride alongside us and get a good long look. Others pass and, like barn owls, swivel their heads around backwards to gawk for a solid thirty seconds, paying no attention to where they are going. It’s no wonder there are so many accidents on Ugandan roads.
Uganda has a lot to offer in terms of tourism. It is extremely ethnically diverse… official count, 56 tribes and approximately nine indigenous communities. It also has beautiful landscapes, from the scenic alpine Ruwenzori highlands to dense forests, full of wildlife. The forests here are magical, to say the least. The largest are Budongo, in the northwest, and the better known Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda is home to 13 types of primates, including over half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas and our closest relative, the chimpanzee. The Pearl of Africa is also one of the best bird watching destinations in the continent. It’s home to over 1,000 species, several of which are found nowhere else on the planet. But the wildness of the western region is limited to these reserves; the remainder of the land is dominated by agriculture.
Seeking out these animals comes at a no small cost. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority generates substantial income from park fees, game drives, and tracking permits. Just one tracking permit for mountain gorillas costs $600, with which a visitor is allowed to spend one hour with the amazing animals. We’ve even been told that if you happen to see a gorilla on a hike through the forest, or near your camp, you are to avert your eyes or park rangers will bill you on the spot. The money that visitors pay goes into the conservation of the parks and the wildlife that lives in them, so the fees are absolutely justifiable. Still, when traveling for several months, we have to watch our budget. As such, we’ve limited our organized park activities to a Nile boat ride and game drive in Murchison Falls, and a single chimpanzee track in Kibale National Park.
Fortunately, traveling by bike has afforded us some fortunate wildlife sightings on this trip. We spotted a pack of wild chimpanzees near our campsite one night. On a day hike, we found two Rwenzori chameleons in one afternoon. And on another day of cycling, we had to wait 50 meters back for a herd of elephants to clear the road. On another evening, there was a group of six mountain gorillas foraging for roots only 30 meters from our tent. Within minutes, a couple of staff members from the camp came and told us we must pay the rangers a little money, or they would charge us. So we gave them about $30 to spend 20 minutes watching the gorillas. As wild a place as the forests are, our movements are tracked and accounted for.
On the one tracking expedition we did pay for, we had the opportunity to spend an intimate hour with a group of thirty chimpanzees. We watched them run through the forest, climb trees, eat fruits, urinate, and scratch themselves. One sat on the ground only a meter and a half from where we stood, put his hands behind his head and took a nap. Our hour was spent studying their movements and facial expressions. We laughed at their similarities with awe-induced grins. The chimps we had “tracked” were habituated, which means that they’ve encountered enough people on a regular basis that they aren’t as reclusive and easily agitated as non-habituated chimps. They do get bit testy with their human onlookers after a while though. At the end of our one hour viewing session, I was charged by a 130lb male, which was invigorating, to say the least. But as we were sitting there blissfully entertained by their shenanigans, it dawned on me. In addition to sharing 98.8% of their genetic makeup, we have another thing in common. We watch these animals out of wonder and curiosity, the same drivers that spawn a group of Ugandans to stare at us.
We watch these animals out of wonder and curiosity, the same drivers that spawn a group of Ugandans to stare at us.”
On any given snack break from our long daily dirt grinds, no matter how remote the locale, it doesn’t take a long for a group of onlookers to converge on the party. Just the other day we stopped for lunch under the shade of a mango tree in a removed farming community. Within minutes, as we were prepping a batch of our ’tropiguac’ – avocado, onion, tomato, and mango – the entire community of about twenty kids, young men and women were standing across the narrow and rutted dirt road watching our every move. A few got behind us. They were quiet as church mice with the occasional whisper and laugh. We cut the avocados in half and emptied the contents into our plastic bowls. Then diced a mango and tomatoes, with giggles and snickers from the crowd. We mixed it in a bowl with titanium sporks as some of the kids craned their heads to see our strange utensils. After it was all doled out, we proceeded to stuff our faces like two crazed animals. Most likely, I had green goo dribbling down my beard, but I was unphased and in food bliss after a series of rugged climbs.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I’d likely have found the staring and watching a little unnerving. But I’ve become quite immune to it at this point. I guess I’m fully habituated.
More from The Trans-Uganda
The Call of Mzungu
In the first trasmission from a small equatorial country in East Africa, Logan and Virginia get chased down…
Bikepacking is survival, but not quite on par with what’s dished out in the central region of Uganda…
White Man, Wild West.
In the land of wild animals and dense forests, pale-skinned cyclists are the ones being watched…