NOTES FROM BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL FOREST
PART ONE: INTO THE RAINFOREST
He might not mean to, but our driver sends out a Morse code “S-O-S” as he honks: three short jolts, three protracted blasts, and another volley of three quick-fire honks, all meant to disperse the pedestrians who are walking in the middle of the red dirt street. A moment of sunlight breaks the rain long enough for us to glimpse a beautiful and unusually well-built, white-chalked house with a black-tiled roof and a spectacular view of an arrestingly green valley. Next to the beautiful house with the beautiful view, a clay hut outside of which we see two kids aged nine, maybe ten, carrying bricks on their heads. They are not child laborers; they are just helping their family build an expansion to their home. Except for the white-chalked one, houses here are built with unpainted, ochre bricks which are burnt elsewhere in the village. Most houses have the square footage of a standard college dorm, but they show no signs of destitution, just as most lots have a contraption for drying coffee beans somewhere in the backyard.
Uganda’s Central African climate makes the country an able coffee producer, and the mountainous terrain near its border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo grows ample amounts of the highly caffeinated red berry. We have not come for the high-quality coffee, however, but rather for the mountains which tower up on our right. Somewhere in those mountains, where geopolitical boundaries are infinitely more fluid for other animals than they are for humans, some four hundred mountain gorillas live within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The park is home to almost half the world’s extant population of mountain gorillas, and because fellow mountain gorilla hotspot Virunga National Park in D.R. Congo struggles with both extensive poaching and embittered political strife, Bwindi welcomes far more visitors than Virunga does. We might be so close to the Congo that the mountains towering up to our right sit well within the Democratic Republic’s borders, but while Bwindi’s proximity to the D.R. Congo will figure in the stories that tourists later tell their awestruck friends, tourists will not cross the border. Instead, they will stay in the luxury lodges just outside the gates into Bwindi. We are driving to one of those lodges, the rustic-yet-indulgent Mahogany Springs Lodge, a small jungle resort made entirely of wood (but not, as one might expect and fear, of mahogany) within walking distance of Buhoma, the last village before the entrance to the national park.
Our driver told us it would take ninety minutes to reach Buhoma from Kihihi airstrip, but a ninety-minute drive near the Ugandan-Congolese border seems to go by faster than a similar drive on an Emirati highway, and not just because the Ugandan highlands offer better views. With all its tosses and turns, the road to Buhoma becomes an attraction in itself. Since we share the unpaved, half-lane road with pedestrians, cattle, and the occasional oncoming car, our driver cannot go faster than sixty kilometers per hour if he expects to reach the lodge unscathed, so we resign ourselves to the long duration of this short drive. To busy ourselves, we gaze out the open windows.
Motorcycles are multiple-person vehicles here; they can seat anywhere from two to four persons. If someone sought a correlation between the number of additional passengers on a motorcycle and the speed at which it barrels down the road, he would not find it; drivers seem not to care that their dangerous flirt with speed jeopardizes up to three other lives as well as their own. Then again, they deftly swerve around our convoy of SUVs with an ease that suggests they have done so before, so perhaps they have become experts at racing down a too narrow dirt road with too many people on the bike.
Our cars’ license plates start with UAE, UAE, and UAF. At first I took this pattern to suggest either that the lodge has a set of license plate just for us or, more likely, that many visitors to Mahogany Springs Lodge either come from or transit through the UAE. I later realized that ‘UAE’ is the standard-issue tri-letter identifier for license plates from Kihihi. But even if the three cars’ license plates only match by coincidence, they make quite an awe-inspiring convoy. Throughout the ride, our driver maintains a furious speed. He does not slow down when we pass a man seated in the side of the road; our car covers his leg stumps with a film of red dust as we speed past. However, he does slow down when we drive through an unnamed village, because, as he tells us, “it is bad luck to drive past the Divine Mercy House (his parish church) without slowing down.”
As we leave the town, goats, cows, and kids continue to intermingle. The children cross the road when they feel like it, as if they have not learned to fear the lethal force of an SUV’s bumper. Our driver continues at the speed we expect from a car chase or a scene in which the Secret Service just told him that a terrorist faction will blow up our convoy if he slows down.
It does not help alleviate my concern about the driver’s speed that Ugandans drive on the right, especially when a massive Isuzu truck swerves close around us with ten or more waving men from the load. They are wielding machetes, but like the children who have not learned to fear oncoming cars, these men might not realize how the knives in their hands might perpetuate Western stereotypes about Central African men’s penchant for war. Moments later, we pass the only two-story private home between Kihihi and Buhoma and notice that the owner has protected his property with a ten-foot wall with razor-sharp broken glass shards on top. This particularly evil burglar repellent may deter property crime, but it sends an unfortunate signal to tourists. Seeing the lengths to which Ugandans go to protect their belongings, tourists are likely to suspect that crime rates here are much higher than they actually are, and that they need to be on guard at all times. Like our driver’s death-defying speed and the machete-wielding men in the Isuzu truck’, the glass shards on top of the wall seem to suggest that Uganda is inherently dangerous, something visitors need protection against.
Eager to look beyond the easy stereotype of Central Africa as a ‘dangerous’ place, I look out the window and deliberately search for a scene that can complicate my first impression of Uganda. Within a minute, a group of uniformed schoolchildren walking on the left side of the road provide that complication, as they wave and cheer at our convoy. More groups of children are making their way home from school up ahead, and it quickly becomes clear that the children of Buhoma can react to an oncoming convoy of SUVs in one of three ways: Some wave and run towards us as they scream “yes!” or “eyyy!” Others turn to face the cars, staring at us with a look that is neither welcoming nor overtly malicious; still others put out their hands to ask for candy in a manner which simultaneously suggests that they expect you to give them candy and shows how disappointed they will be if you do not. As we came unprepared for the children who want candy, we have to disappoint some of them, but the energy and joy painted on the faces of these uniformed cheerleaders surely must dispel any sense of danger in even the most paranoid and overwhelmed visitors. The schoolchildren’s enthusiasm tells us that, rather than isolate ourselves during our time in Buhoma, we should open up to the people we meet; perhaps we can learn to feel the children’s unbridled enthusiasm if we try?
Just before we turn onto the road to Mahogany Springs Lodge, our driver pulls over the car by what is obviously a tea field. No doubt not meaning to patronize, he says: “This is what we call ‘tea’. Do you know what tea is?” He continues, “Most Ugandans drink tea, but they do not take coffee. There’s a saying that coffee gives you heartburn.” In the spirit of learning from the people around us, our driver’s comment exemplifies the openness it takes to unlock Uganda. His comments strike us as obvious, until we see the profound point hidden within. Ugandans grow coffee, but they do not drink it; they see coffee for what it is: the world’s most ubiquitous drug. Might we all learn something from the Ugandan coffee producers and leave the vexed brew alone in order to live a bit longer?
The stop gives us a chance to savor our packed lunches, which come in sealed envelopes. Its contents, a cheese and tomato sandwich, a vegetable empanada, two hard-boiled eggs, a slice of cake, and a banana, are wrapped in Saran Wrap four times around to prevent contamination. When our drivers bring the envelopes out from the trunk in a big crate, I cannot help but wonder if our lunch traveled with us all the way from Abu Dhabi; the envelopes certainly give our lunch packs the clinical appearance of plane food. This suspicion lasts until I attempt to peel one of the two Saran-wrapped eggs in the envelope and struggle to break the brown shell. In Abu Dhabi, egg shells are paper thin, because industrial farming puts so much pressure on caged chickens to lay eggs that they do not have enough time or calcium to envelop each egg in a robust shell; this West Ugandan egg is so thick-shelled that I have to bash it against my kneecap to break it.
Upon reflection, perhaps the contrast between the UAE’s thin-shelled eggs and the near shatter-proof Ugandan ones captures the different spirits of the two countries: whereas life in the UAE can too easily become a prolonged lull of convenience, Uganda overwhelms its visitors and makes something as simple as breaking an egg a protracted task. In Abu Dhabi, one always hears the background murmur of construction work; that industrial soundscape does not exist in Buhoma, where the only sounds heard are the constant chirping of unseen birds in the canopy and the occasional riff of an SUV engine on the dirt road. Life in Buhoma lacks many of the comforts of the UAE, but the thrill of getting by without the comfort of driving on paved roads invigorates us and prepares us for our weekend goal: to reconnect with our genetic cousins dwelling in the Bwindi rainforest just beyond Buhoma’s city limits.