I went to Uganda. The reasons were fairly simple:
- I was in a bad headspace.
- My friend invited me to Uganda.
I've always been bad at decision making and I leaned in hard on the impulsive and exciting option. I had some naive and idealised views of what some time away could offer me. I felt that I could go away, do some exciting activities, see some exciting shit, realise how exciting and interesting the world is, and go back home with a reignited vigour to get things sorted (buying a house, building out my company etc). It didn't quite happen like that.
Lets start with an overview of the notable things we saw/did..
About a decade ago when I was back at university I did a lot of whitewater kayaking. I stopped because it got to the point where I was sufficiently good that the things I was doing were becoming increasingly dangerous. Uganda was always an oft discussed destination for some hardcore kayaking opportunities. There was Bujagali Falls (which sadly no longer exists due to damming) and Itanda Falls.
I wanted to visit Itanda Falls because I really like water. I said this to a friend and then I had to double check as to whether that is a weird thing to say. Apparently it is not. The reason I like water is because its a humbling element that I have had close proximity to. I made lifelong friends on the water, and experienced the gamut of worldy emotions through our adventures - joy, fear, awe, solitude, grief.
The noise, the power, the consequences. The idea that the same water that you fill your glass with in a different context will kill you. Everyone appreciates that crashing a car has the potential to kill you, but you drive your car every day and don't really consider this because.. it doesn't happen very often and you can't live a life of perpetual fear. Similarly your glass of water wont kill you, but sometimes it is awe inspiring to acknowledge the context in which it could.
I just kind of stood at the top of Itanda Falls and took it in. For a long time. I think I could sit next to a waterfall like that for hours and not get bored. It's mesmerising, and humbling. I have always been curious about meditation and mindfulness - some people swear by it. I never really understand how one can simply be with thought. But in a place like this it seems obvious - what else would you do but nothing.
The Itanda Half Marathon
After that I proposed to my friend Tom2 (yes - it's a common name) that he drive back to Jinja and I would run. The road (like many Ugandan roads) is just packed dirt full of potholes. It was 15 or so miles long but easily takes an uncomfortable hour in the car. I hadn't run since I had arrived, and it seemed like a novel way to get a run in.
I was pretty exhausted at the start. If I recall correctly alcohol had been consumed the night before. I wasn't in peak physical shape, and it was 28 degrees. But I ran. It was probably the best running experience of my life.
As if I was filming a documentary for British TV as I ran down the road children ran out of their houses to high 5 me. Loads of them followed me, and tried to keep up. Their smiles were infectious. It was impossible not to smile. It was impossible not to gesture to them to keep up. One group of children were walking back from the well. They must have been 6/7 years old, carrying two 5 litre bottles of water with them. They ran along. They kept up. It provided perspective. It made me cry. Honestly, it fucked me up. Here is me impulsively flying to Uganda because I feel a bit shitty, and you stumble upon kids who have nothing yet have a huge grin on their faces regardless.
There were also the older kids. One kid was on a push bike - a horrendously old one with no gears. He was struggling along and just so happened to be riding at the pace I was running. We had a broken chat in English over the course of about 5k as he cycled home to his village. He paced me, and it was absolutey needed at this point. We discussed running, how often I go to the gym (I don't), and the availability of facilities in the local area (there are gyms but they are as primitive as one might expect). In about 25 minutes I was again humbled. I kind of wanted to keep in touch, and help him out in any way I could. But.. these kids don't have Facebook (obviously). They have nothing.
The other child I ran with was astonishing. Maybe 15 years old. Came running out of his house onto the road on his own and started running with me. I assumed he was just going to chase for a few moments whilst smiling and giggling. At this point I was completely broken so the conversation wasn't flowing as much. He ran with me, and again helped me with the pace. I was running 7:30 minute miles and he was easily keeping up with me. He pushed the pace and I had to tell him to slow down. He ran with me for 2 miles. He was wearing flip flips. Absolutely astonishing.
I got to 13.1 miles before Tom caught up with me. It had gotten dark and Ugandan roads are not really safe to run on in the dark. It is an inevitable broken ankle. I found out after the fact that Tom had queried the villagers on his drive as to whether they'd seen me - a white man running. Apparently everyone had, and everyone had told him that he wouldn't catch me - I was going too fast XD.
During the trip we also went up to Murchison Falls National Park. An old kayaking friend had pointed out to me that if I had been impressed by Itanda Falls I would lose my mind over Murchison Falls. She was right.
We booked to do the boat cruise that takes you upstream to see the falls from below. We had time to spare so we opted to drive to the top of the falls to have a look. We went and did the 30 minute or so walk to get to the various view points, and just.. holy fucking shit. Again.. the power of water is humbling, and mesmerising. I chatted to one of the guides and he stated that 6000 cubic metres of water tumble over the falls every second. That is a disgusting amount of water.
I am unsure if this is an appropriate way of measuring water, but I peered into the aptly named 'Devil's Cauldron' and spent about 30 minutes considering all of the numerous ways this waterfall could kill you. The core difference between Itanda and Murchison is that you could swim down Itanda falls and get incredibly incredibly lucky and plausibly survive if the gods were looking down on you that day. Murchison Falls - nope. You have absolutely no chance - you ded.
Cue a discussion on "The Imp of the Perverse" - the "psychological urge to do the worst possible thing in a given situation just because you can". The idea that a few hundred metres up stream the river is not that bad. One could quite plausibly just impulsively jump in and go for a swim.. but.. it would be your last swim.
Because our timings were somewhat tight we had to leave too soon to get back for the boat trip. The boat trip was cool - we saw lots of animals on the way and had a beer. But.. the falls are pretty underwhelming from below when you've seen them up close. I did have a really enlightening chat with some missionaries from Storehouse in Jasper, Alabama. They were out here looking to purchase land on which to build a well to provide water to local villages. They all had full time jobs in a variety of different industries and had come out in their holiday time to do good, and to support others less fortunate than themselves. I was transparent about my being non-religious but they were super friendly. I had a great chat about finding purpose and fulfilling work. I've said it before, I'll say it again - talk to strangers. Previously I've kind of gone into my shell and got too comfortable with my way of life/day to day existence. When things are good I always accept where I'm at and coast but I've come to learn that life is more interesting when you continue to expose yourself to new and interesting people/places/experiences.
For the first time in the history of my travelling life when we got back onto dry land I insisted to Tom2 that we drive back to the top of the falls to see them again as the sun was setting. The experience was too good. Life changingly good. We went back, it was insane.
Lots of tour groups had had the same idea but whereas they had to get back on their buses when it officially closed we just stayed and chilled for half an hour more. It was beautiful.
The following day we did a proper Safari in a 4WD. It seems insane to say, but this was quite mediocre. We got up bright and early to try and see the lions and whilst we did (from a distance, after hours of driving around) it was somewhat underwhelming compared to the falls. Tom2 also made the apt point that lions from a distance are basically deer without horns. They are rare but boring. These are cooler:
Over the course of our various long drives Tom2 had been an open ear (for which I'm endlessly appreciative) in terms of listening to me and talking through my problems. In the course of those chats he gave me some insight into his upbringing and the difficulties and traumas that he had faced. Those are his stories to tell (or not), but again it was an enlightening part of the trip - the realisation that someone who you think you know quite well.. there is actually a lot more context.
On the way back from Murchison Falls we stopped off in a village to look at a property that Tom2 was sorting out for his sister. It was in the village where he had previously lived for 4 years and he had used his connections to help his sister out. We spent some time in the village and at one point there was a group of young children hovering who were clearly super intrigued by me - a white man. Tom2 translated and stated that they wanted a photo. I obliged.
Not only had they never seen a white man before, but they had also never seen a tattoo before.
Or by the looks of it, a car.
Over the course of the trip I didn't actually get that many photos. I often wasn't carrying my phone. On other occasions it just seemed wrong to take photos of the plight of others for cheap likes. That said, part of the eye opening nature of the Ugandan experience for me was that I'd previously been completely oblivious to reality.
Whilst at Murchison I did a couple of runs along the bush walk route at the place we were staying - Mama Washindi Lodge (amazing place, especially the food). Because of the uneven terrain and the primitive location I did end up running along the quiet main perimeter road of the national park. Tom2 was somewhat concerned on occasion that my running might be dangerous. What if for example animals escaped from the national park and I ran into a lion? I acknowledged his concern and ran anyway. The national park would obviously have infrastructure in place to keep the animals in. The staff at the lodge also seemed unconcerned. Well.. it turns out animals regularly do escape and the wreak havoc on the surrounding villages. When we were leaving the park after our safari the guide pointed out an in-progress escape by a group of elephants. Logically the park is not fenced because the park is.. huge. With this knowledge I almost certainly still would have run. Incidents are few and far between and I feel like if I saw an elephant in the distance I wouldn't pick up the pace and run towards it XD
After Jinja and Murchison we were both fairly exhausted. Tom2 had some work to do as well as a backlog of studying. I was left to my own devices. I didn't get up to all that much, but I did try to continue my running. I can't recall all of the days/timings so I'll just give a general overview..
Kampala is not setup for running. The traffic is intense. There are no rules. Cars do what they want. There are rarely pavements, and if there are the Boda Boda (motorbike) guys use them to cut through traffic. I ended up conceding and running along the pavement next to the main highways - boring but somewhat safe. On a few occasions I ran through the backstreets of small poverty stricken villages - the tradeoff was more safety for worse road surfaces. I often times got lost - the streets are a maze and they don't all interconnect. My approach to running is to turn when required and have a general bearing. The end result was that my runs often ended up being longer than anticipated. On one occasion I had a zoom call to get back to. I got back 1 minute late and had to attend shirtless covered in sweat. I also had to explain that I was in Uganda.
I also ran to the stadium on one occasion. I ran through the gate and was promptly called back by two soldiers heavily laden with weaponry. Forunately? Uganda is a racially curious place.. they have an unjustified amount of respect for people simply because they are white. I came to learn that you are very very safe if you are white - there is an inherent respect. Whilst there were some young locals having a lot of trouble getting access it was a case of signing a form and offering a fist bump for me :/ I ran around the stadium, and then I ran in the stadium. The stadium had a running track in it that was in a state of disrepair. I did a lap and then left. I was then reprimanded by another soldier who had apparently been trying to catch me. He was not happy. I am not quite sure why, but I suspect I was not meant to have run in the stadium. He was also incensed and confused that the soldiers at the gate hadn't required a bribe from me. Not that I could have paid a bribe.. I was carrying no cash.
Social Innovation Academy
I stumbled upon SINA on TripAdvisor. Being entrepreneurial, and having gained some perspective on the state of affairs in Uganda I was super intrigued.
I went along solo and did a tour. It was super interesting. They basically support orphaned children from a young age and then as appropriate help them in finding and solving problems that affect them. There was a company that recycled waste plastic bags into bags and containers. Another group had recycled plastic bottles by building houses with them. They had supported an engineer in building a business making flooring out of egg shells and plastic bags, and there was a group that had build systems for safely filtering water for drinking.
The general crux of the problem is that there is a lot of poverty in Uganda and nowhere near enough jobs. If you are fortunate enough to be supported through a university degree it often times means nothing if there are no jobs to go into.
Hearing this reminded me of what Tom2 had told me on one of our previous drives about the street sellers that fill the roads in certain locations. In some areas they predominantly sell food - meat (beef and chicken) on a stick, BBQd plantains, and drinks. Whilst they taste amazing and are incredibly cheap there are an immeasurable number of individuals pushing their products through your window simply because they have to if they want to keep their families fed and safe. They have to if they want to survive. It is a sorry state of affairs :(
Whilst at SINA I sat in one of their buildings and spent an hour journalling. I answered the prompt 'I need to..' and a number of thoughts spewed onto the page.
Noting my timings I stopped to go out on a run. I figured I would take advantage of being in a relatively quiet/peaceful/beautiful area and get a long run in. As usual the heat, my general built up fatigue, life got in the way. On my way back I was climbing up a large hill and had all but given up. My intention was to crawl back to the car by the quickest route possible and concede defeat.
I was OK with it - this in and of itself was a major win for me/this trip - being able to fail. It was one of the points I'd noted in my journal. I always aim high, am extremely dedicated to my goals, and absolutely hate when things don't go to plan. This attitude to failure has hurt me more than my failures themselves.
Another one of the points I had written down related to how life is about taking risk and doing things. It's very easy to let life pass you by but there is so much potential for interesting adventures and experiences if you feel the fear and do things anyway. Even more so when things are suboptimal anyway - what have you got to lose?
As I reached the top of a large hill on my way back I saw a large group of local teens playing football. I was pretty much done with my run, and noting how the local kids had been reacting to my running I figured it'd be fun to have a kick about. So I stopped and was totally chill with having 'failed'. Before I knew it I was getting absolutely destroyed at a game of 'piggy in the middle'. The local school girls who were watching absolutely loved it and had some exceedingly good banter mainly focussed around my accent. I chatted to the lads :P about football - it made their day that they were playing football with a British guy from Manchester who supports Liverpool in their tiny village in the Ugandan countryside. It made my day too.
Tom2 was super hospitable during my stay. I did not have to pay for accommodation during my stay (apart from when we were away from Kampala), and his apartment is really nice. There were a few.. noise issues, namely the gospel singing through the night on Sundays (there is a Church next door), and the dogs that barked through the night on every other day (who keeps devil dogs in an apartment building?), but no real complaints from me - it was part of the experience. Hyperanalyssing the situation (as I do), I actually thought it was a good thing because it allowed me to practice my new found zen-like patience. Admittedly on at least one occasion (exacerbated by a random bout of low mood) I did start shouting at a wall at 4am whilst contemplating how I would have no issue shooting the dogs in question (and I fucking love dogs) were a rifle more easily available to me.
Anyhow, Tom2 was great so I offered take him to the best hotel I could find - Kampala Serena Hotel. It's the one the diplomats and the celebs go to. The one where you're sitting next to someone who has the wealth/power/clout to click his/her fingers and ruin your life. As is always the case, the food/drinks were great but not worth the cost. The pool however..
It seemed appropriate to do my first Challenge Roth training swim because it was too good a pool not to. I did 100 lengths in 58 minutes or something which I was pretty happy with as a starting point for the swim side of my training. I had been somewhat in my element so hadn't been aware of the chat that Tom2 had had with the pool attendant whilst I had been swimming. When I got out I was met with the news that I had to pay a $39 pool use fee as a non-resident. Obviously, it makes sense that if you are not a guest you have to pay to use facilities. My approach tends to be to ask for forgiveness, not permission and I am always happy to pay when it is requested. Often times they don't care because of the whole 'they've just spent a billion dollars on food/drinks' but on this occasion they did. Fortunately Uganda is corrupt as hell. Everything is up for negotiation. I offered 100,000 Ugandan Schillings and my offer was immediately accepted. I was crushed I'd gone in too high :P Such is life, and honestly.. totally worth it. Would do again.
When I first arrived we sat down and organised a basic itinerary of possible things to do. Tom2 had mentioned Park Shoebill. I basically sorted Murchison and he sorted Park Shoebill. I was a bit cynical - it seemed a bit.. meh, and it was worryingly cheap but I figured why not.. try new things and all that. It was fucking great !
We got the boat across Lake Victoria to the island. That was pretty great in and of itself. We were met with fresh Watermelon juice and shown to our accommodation which was.. great.
I queried if it was OK/safe to go for a run and was then informed that one of the guides (Ibra) would be coming with me. I wasn't sure if this was because it was a safety requirement or if he just wanted to come. It turned out it was the latter. He was a footballer, clearly very fit etc but I did feel obliged to point out that I was a marathon runner and was probably going to do 10 miles fairly fast. He just said OK to everything which was somewhat worrying. I thought I was about to get completely destroyed. Fortunately I did not. Whilst Ibra took us out at fairly casual 6:45 minute mile pace, he couldn't hack it and stopped 2 miles in and turned it into a tour of his village :P We then carried on but after a few more miles he conceded. I continued on my run and he walked it in. I don't speak Ugandan but I got the impression that the villagers fucking loved it.
Then we watched a movie on a projector by a camp fire. The movie was 'Ambulance'. It was quite shit. What I liked most about the experience was the very Ugandan approach to a movie night/decision making. It was very much "You will now be watching Ambulance". We were like.. "Um, OK.. I guess we are watching Ambulance".
We did lots of activities with Ibra over the following 48 hours, and chilled in the treehouse and had some fun chats. He was great as were the rest of the staff. They were all super hospitable, couldn't do enough for you, and were just super nice people.
We did various activities:
- The ropes course. It was kind of like Go Ape in the UK, but on steroids. Uganda doesn't really do safety. The whole thing looked and seemed to be completely safe but without the need to have 1200 disclaimer forms, safety checks, insurance etc they were able to make it actually fun. The obstacles were actually challenging and physically demanding. They had 3 levels (so that there is something for everyone) with the third level involving a non-trivial climbing wall, some very shaky rope based steps, and an upside down shimmy across a pole. I managed to complete all 3 courses and got onto their 'Wall of Fame' which actually made me feel great because it was actually hard.
- Boat rowing. This was as simple as it sounds. You get in a metal boat and you just row. For absolutely no reason, and in absolutely no direction. Noting that things are more fun when you have a goal Tom, Ibra, and I opted to chase a fishing boat. We caught them. They were like WTF. We continued on :)
- Water Zorbing. You get in a zorb and you run on the lake. It is fucking impossible. Tom2 went first and I watched. It was fucking hilarious. I gave it a go and managed to just about run for about 10 seconds but holy shit it is exhausting. It's also basically a death chamber because after about 5 minutes you are exhausted and breathing nothing but CO2. I had to weigh up my incessant desire to succeed at everything vs my desire to continue breathing.
The movie for the night was 'Lone Survivor'. I took a risk and asked if there were.. options :) I managed to persuade them to let us watch the new Top Gun.
On the final day I was completely exhausted and horrendously anxious. We went and got coffee at the posh coffee shop nearby. We found out where all the white people (there were 3) hang out having only seen one other white person in Kampala (we had met quite a few in the various tourist hotspots that we visited). I caffeined up having explained to the waiting staff what our interpretation of a white coffee was (the initial attempt was a teapot of steamed milk with a tiny tiny amount of coffee in it).
After umming and ahhing about it I decided I was going to head back to the Serena hotel to attempt to pick up my swimming shorts that I'd foolishly left behind. I had debated one last jaunt in the car but eventually concluded that with a flight to catch it was too risky to take the car and have to battle with Kampala traffic. Instead Tom2 got his Boda boda guy on the line, and I went on an adventure.
Having driven the roads I knew exactly what the Boda's do - whatever the fuck they want. At first I was holding on for dear life. Who knew that riding a motorcycle was such an intense core workout. By the end I was no handsing it and taking selfies. It was great fun albeit incredibly sketchy. I don't think I saw a single accident in my time in Uganda, and I'm not sure why.
Unfortunately they didn't have my shorts but I swam again anyway. I was too fucked to run, and swimming for whatever reason always seems easier. Today's price was 75,000 UGX. Had a Margarita, got the Boda back to the flat, and got ready to leave.
Unbelievably Entebbe airport was ridiculously efficient.
Travel for people, interests, or experience.
Over the years my relationship with travel has changed massively. When I travelled pre-university I was what I would term a 'Trip Advisor Traveller' - I would visit a place and iteratively work through the Top 10 things to do as rated on Trip Advisor. I vividly remember paying $10 to climb the Coit Tower in San Francisco and then having the realisation that I gave not one single shit about what was at the top of the spiral staircase.
Kayaking, Work, and Running have taken me around the world over the years and usually those trips have been incredibly fulfilling. I have been able to see beautiful places, push my physical limits, and.. work in fantastic places. The reason those trips were so enjoyable was that they had purpose.
Things changed when in 2017 I visited Vietnam on a whim. Vietnam is absolutely amazing - one of the best places I have ever visited, but I went there because I'd sold one of my projects, had suddenly lost my focus, and needed to do something different. I booked a ticket impulsively and left. Reflecting back on that trip I was adamant that I'd never repeat the approach because it simply wasn't fulfilling. I was running away from my newly found lack of purpose. Without a plan.
When considering Uganda I was cognisant that arguably I was running away from my problems. I took a momentary rain check. Wherever you go, you follow. You can't fly away from your feelings. I concluded that I had a purpose, namely to catch up with a good friend. I made a fantastic decision.
Travel for people, interests, or experience.
As mentioned above, the unexpected (but in hindsight obvious) takeaway from the trip was perspective. Objectively my life is very good. Some people have it really bad. Seeing this first hand was eye opening. Similarly to how white water looks comparatively small when photographed, the reality of life in the 3rd world really slaps you in the face when it's in front of you. A therapist would say that you shouldn't be dismissive of anyones feelings and emotions - hedonistic adaptation is very real, and how bad you feel about your first world problem may in fact be comparable to the physical symptoms of an objectively much worse situation to someone who has lived in abject poverty for their whole existence. What really got me was the fact that these people always seemed happy. They came across as battle hardened warriors who were making the best of their situation. They were resilient. First world existence is often wrapped in cotton wool. I'm not resilient and I need to be.
Then there were the chats. I thought I knew Tom2 well prior to the visit. By the end of the trip I'd learned so much more about him, his life, his experiences. It makes me question how much I know about my other friends. There are layers to people that you can discover if you ask. Again, not my stories to tell but I found myself thinking on a number of occasions 'Damn Tom you need to shut the fuck up' when hearing some of the problems that Tom2 is facing.
I was also able to learn about myself. I have always been of the view that I need brutal honesty. Tom2 has a manner about him whereby he is brutally honest and it hits. It's like getting reprimanded by a school teacher you respect - it's uncomfortable but you acknowledge the point. But he gets the balance right too - he's an all round nice guy and will give you a random complement or congratulate you on your successes without prompt. It made me want to be nicer.
On the point of being congratulated on ones successes. A few months ago I got rid of Strava because I felt as though I had become too dependent on external validation as a justification for my running. I did a lot of running in Uganda and it was hellishly hard - the temperatures were at there lowest 25 degrees, and the route options suboptimal at best. It was incredibly fulfilling pushing myself.. for me. It also just so happens that taking the pressure of oneself by having no explicit targets and no need for validation makes running a shit load more enjoyable. Who would have thought. I posted the occasional Instagram story about specific runs and specific successes but for the most part I just did what I wanted to do and enjoyed it for what it was. I did on occasion get external validation.. but from real people. It's so much better when you can see the validation. In the process I also attained a VO2 max personal best - 67. Honestly, I didn't even know that Garmin's V02 Max measurements could go this high, but the heat and the altitude combined with some solid mileage has seen my cardio come on significantly.
Over the course of the trip I did a lot of self reflection. A lot of the 'I need to' journal prompt responses that I came up with at SINA stemmed from Tom2's commentary on my approach to life. I had a lot of aha moments as a result of those conversations. I left Uganda with the same anxieties as I had arrived (boo) but left with perspective and a better understanding of who I am, where I've historically gone wrong, and what I need to do to improve and move forward productively.
Things you can carry on a bike
For some bonus content, here are some photos of things that you can carry on a motorbike.
At a different time I was driving and I was being stared down by a man on a bike on the wrong side of the wrong carrying a windshield horizontally. I snort laughed and he reciprocated. Everyone knows they are being ridiculous, but they do it anyway :)
Some of the contraptions the locals come up with to allow them to attach completely obscene things to their bikes are impressive feats of engineering.
The pineapples here are great. I understand why you'd want to secure your pineapple well. Interestingly pineapples are sold by street sellers usually in groups of 4/5. They are often carried by young women, on their heads. When you pay the 10,000 UGX price tag they just open your car and put them in for you. We bought pineapples at one point, and it was only when we got back that I realised how heavy 5 pineapples are. The things that these people carry on their heads.. its obscene. I am pretty athletic/fit and I was exhausted carrying them up two flights of stairs..