Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Charlie Walker in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi

The hostel was largely full of twenty-something American missionaries. Uganda attracts large numbers of short-term (university holidays) messengers of Christ. It’s a pleasant country to visit on holiday and if the collection plate is able to part-fund a trip then it would be hard to refuse. Uganda is a stable, beautiful and (sometimes-shockingly) conservatively Christian country. Last year’s Anti Homosexuality Bill (also known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”) narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty for homosexual acts but did however prescribe life imprisonment and included a clause in which Ugandans in same-sex relationships overseas should be extradited home for punishment.

The crowd of 50 or so mostly-Texan missionaries were almost universally female, overweight, sporting recently-braided hair and suffering from sunburned seams of scalp between their braids. Loud and apparently unaware of others, they filled the bar and some even performed hilariously laboured aerobics on the lawn to 1990s hits by the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys. I heard one (indeed, her volume was impossible to ignore) yell across the bar to her friend engaged in conversation with a stranger: “Hey Michelle! Are you flirtin’ or convertin’ over there?”

Needless to say, I stayed only one night.

Charlie Walker's adventures through Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.  For those who don't read this blog often, Charlie is a fellow I met in a hostel in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.  He had biked from the UK to China, and was on his way home....by way of Cape Town.  Yes, his travels make mine look like Club Med.

The storm’s still, chill aftermath soon cleared the strange wake up call from my mind. That day was one of the occasional ones where I long to not be a foreigner. I don’t long to be at home as such, but just to be less conspicuous. The continual shouts (even if they be greetings) at me because I am different; the total lack of privacy or a moment’s peace unless I play music through my headphones and close my eyes and forget about the crowd of ten or more stood closely packed around me; the manic intensity with which young boys scream ceaselessly for my attention and continue to do so until acknowledged, after which they continue cheering and shouting triumphantly as though they’ve achieved something great; the young men who kick into action on their single-speed Chinese bicycles when I pass them at my steady pace, and strain every muscle to overtake me – objective achieved, white man bettered, they pull in front of me and stop pedalling, thus treating me to a heady assault of body odour and the necessity to swerve suddenly and dangerously to avoid shunting them; the people who find me hidden in the trees at midday and beg unscrupulously for the simple lunch I’m eating that will not nearly replace all the calories I’ve burned that morning. All these things are, of course, to be expected and are part of my daily life. Kindness or intent has nothing to do with it. There’s never any malice, well, rarely. However, this barrage of tactless attention, on occasion, makes me long for an unpeopled desert or the happy facelessness of riding in a European country where I’m simply dismissed as another member of The Great Unwashed and of little interest to anyone....

That adrenalin-flooded descent was one of those moments completely antithetical to the aforementioned downbeat exhaustion with being foreign. I’d had a hard day, I’d made friends, I’d had plenty of beer and now I had that magical feeling of going somewhere unplanned that I don’t know with people I hardly know. The excitement of uncertainty and then the exhilarating surrender to life. Like giving up swimming against a current and letting a river sweep you away to uncertainty and the unknown. On so many levels, this is why I travel.

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