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Peace, Love, and Adventure

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Sunset over the Kazinga Channel, Western Rift Valley, Uganda

This past weekend, I went on my ideal mini-vacation—a 3-day excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in the Western Rift Valley of Uganda along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I booked the trip a few weeks ago, as I knew my time here was winding down and a safari was at the top of my list of things to do this summer! I was able to see the Big 5 on safari in Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2015, but I had yet to see a male lion in person. This topped my list of “things to do,” and I got so much more out of this trip than I anticipated.

 

Day 0:

I booked the safari through the Red Chilli Hideaway Hostel (which is actually more like a hotel), located on the south side of Kampala bordering Lake Victoria. As the safari was leaving at 6:30 am the following morning, they offered me a free room for Friday night! Because our internet died in the office, Diana was gracious enough to let me leave a few hours early so I could enjoy the pool at Red Chilli and get some sun. They also served delicious pizza by the pool, which I enjoyed, of course.

 

Day 1:

The next morning started before dawn at 6:30 am as we set off southeast from Kampala on the Masaka highway toward the DRC. I slept all the way to the Equator (about 2 hours). We stopped here to take pictures, as the rest of our tour group (4 Belgian girls and a German dad and daughter) had never been to the Equator! As this was my 5th time crossing the Equator (!) I took the chance to grab coffee instead. We then continued on, passing through Masaka (where I had visited with my office for the UN OHCHR conference a few weeks before), the turn off for Lake Mburo (good memories from last month here!), Mbarara (the second largest city in Uganda), and finally to QENP.

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The town center of Mbarara

 

 

The drive was sooooo long…9 hours to be exact. The road past Mbarara was full of potholes, so the driving went even slower here.

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Typical potholes past Mbarara

Fortunately, I was able to sit in the front for the entire trip with our driver/guide Noor, so I was able to take in all of the views from my open window on the passenger side.

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Fruit stand along the way
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Famous Ankole cattle of western Uganda

We passed the most gorgeous tea plantations that covered the hills and plains of the Western Rift Valley like a blanket of green in the Bushenyi District. We were actually able to walk through one on the third day when passing back through, but here are some pictures of what these fields look like.

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Tea production is becoming a huge part of the Ugandan economy. Indians introduced tea to Uganda in the 19th century, yet production almost stopped in the 1970s as war devastated the country and the ruthless dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country, confiscating much of their property in the process. Tea production picked back up when stability returned in the 1980s. While many of the larger estates are currently owned by foreign Indian companies, there is a big effort to ensure local ownership and to support Ugandan producers, particularly small farmers. It is estimated Uganda is currently producing tea at a rate of 10% of its potential capacity, so there is a lot of room for expansion. Sadly, global climate change may halt Uganda’s ability to produce tea as soon as 2050 if it continues at the current pace.

 

Before arriving at our accommodations at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we stopped by the salt mining lake at the village of Katwe.

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Salt mine at Katwe

The salt lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and the mining activity employs hundreds of local workers. Each day, the workers “break” the salt crystals that have formed at the top of each pool, and eventually they collect the crystals from the bottom of the lake. They then wash them and grind them into smaller crystals for consumption. Katwe exports about 70% of the salt produced to other countries in East Africa.

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Selling salt at Katwe

 

 

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Crystals forming at the top of the pool
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Salt workers working in the lake. They only work 2 days a week because the work is so strenuous. Also, this is the second time I’ve seen a Ugandan wearing a confederate flag. My first thought was confusion, but my second thought was that American rednecks need to stop donating clothing that somehow makes it way over here. I’m sure this guy has no clue what this symbol means…it’s sad.

After Katwe, we continued on to the bush lodge. For the first night, I had booked a standard tent, being the budget-minded traveling law student that I am. For the second night, they did not have any available tents, so I was “forced” to upgrade to a banda…but I wasn’t complaining!

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My tent for night #1!

We had a 4-course dinner under the stars at the dining area of the camp overlooking the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake George to Lake Edward. I heard hippos and warthogs outside my tent as I fell asleep that first night…I was so exhausted I didn’t wake up once!

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4-course dining at Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel

 

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at the dining area at 6am, and was on the truck with Noor for our game drive by 6:30am. The sunrise over the savannah was so beautiful as we made our way toward the areas where our guide knew we could spot the Big 5 (except rhinos, which sadly aren’t in this park).

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Cheesy, but I feel like sunrises and sunsets are everyday miracles, and I will never get tired of them!

I spotted everything I wanted to see…

Elephants…

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An elephant walking across the savannah…I wish I could post video on WordPress…it was an amazing sight to watch!

Buffalo…

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This bush buck…they are known to be loners and only are spotted with other bush buck when mating…

 

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Uganda kob..

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This gorgeous leopard…it was amazing to see her so close…

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…and my male lion. But…I will never look at lions the same way now. Our lion had just finished hunting this buffalo, and was panting heavily with his eyes halfway closed. However, the way he chose to start eating his buffalo left a LOT of questions in all of our minds as we looked down at him from the safari truck. WHY did he eat the buffalo THAT WAY? It was truly so gross. (Warning: if you’re about to eat anything, you may want to skip this picture). I have to say…this ruined The Lion King a little bit for me.

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Sick to my stomach every time I look at this picture… ewww!

After our game drive, we continued our journey with a 2 hour drive around the famous crater lakes. These lakes, like Lake Katwe, were formed by volcanic activity several thousand years ago. We didn’t see any game here, but the views were breathtaking still.

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The lakes reminded me so much of what I saw in Bolivia last summer, which makes me wonder if the volcanic activity occurred when South America and Africa were still joined as one continent.

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As we drove around the lakes deep in the bush, our truck was swarmed by infamous tsetse flies! These are known for carrying the dreaded African Sleeping Sickness, but according to Noor this disease no longer exists. (“If it did, I’d be dead by now because I’ve been bitten so many times,” he said.) I was bitten twice (it felt like a small bee sting), so hopefully he’s right!

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Tsetse fly

After the crater lakes drive, we had all gotten our appetite back a bit post-lion encounter, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant in the park. I ate my vegetables and rice while looking out over the buffaloes and elephants drinking their water in the Kazinga Channel.

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Lunch view…watching the elephants and buffalo drink from the Kazinga Channel

In the later afternoon, we took a 2 hour boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel and into the mouth of Lake Edward, which runs along the DRC border. Our boat spotted a crocodile, elephants, buffalo, impala, water buck, and what was probably close to 100 hippos (not exaggerating!) Our boat even hit a hippo, which I was not happy about. 😦 He seemed to be ok though.

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Crocodiles and impala…coexisting, for now

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My favorite part of the boat cruise was when we sailed into the mouth of Lake Edward and saw about 30 of the local village men leaving in their canoes for a night of fishing.

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Because they live on national park land, these men must earn their livelihood solely from fishing and cannot farm the land. They fish at night and then barter their fish for food in the market during the day to feed their families. Each boat contained two fishermen, and they rowed out into the lake past swarms of hippos. They are so dedicated and brave, and I felt almost embarrassed watching them from my comfortable tourist position on the boat. Our guide informed us that 30% of the park fees we paid go to support schools and infrastructure in their village. Yet to see their dedication, work ethic, and bravery in person was truly humbling and inspiring.

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Sailing into Lake Edward at night fall to provide for their families

 

After the boat ride, we made our way back to the bush camp, where I moved into my banda for the night!

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I was in the Warthog banda…I ❤ pumbas!

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My personal outdoor shower! For hot water, they manually fill the bucket with heated water

 

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Sunset over Kazinga Channel from my front porch

Hippo, warthogs, hyenas, and even elephants and lions are regularly spotted in and around the camp. For this reason, I had to have a personal escort between the dining area and my banda after dark, as the bandas are further removed from the center of the camp than the tent area.

After dinner, I sat on my porch in complete darkness and silence, looking at the thousands of stars in the sky and listening to all the animals enjoying their nightlife around the Kazinga Channel just below. I felt safe, as an armed guard with a flashlight was stationed next to my banda for the night, and could assist me if I needed to leave for any reason (but again, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at the dedication and bravery of his profession, and I was so grateful for him!) I heard elephants and lions twice respectively, and listened to the constant sounds of the birds, warthogs, hippos, and insects as I slept like a baby for the second night in a row. (Or as Noor says, “I slept like a baby, without the crying!”)

 

Day 3:

The next morning began just as the previous one had—5:30am wake up, 6am breakfast, and 6:30am departure. This time, we loaded the truck and headed back toward Kampala, stopping at the Kalinzu rainforest along the way for a morning of chimpanzee trekking. We hiked through the dense forest for about half an hour before locating the chimpanzees stationed in the tall trees above. The forest was so thick and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of the beautiful time I spent hiking alone in Monteverde, Costa Rica back in January.

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Following my guide Robert through the rainforest

Once we located the chimps, we stopped and watched for about an hour. I camped out on the rainforest floor and just took it all in. While it was fun to watch the chimps, to me it was even more fun to listen to them talk to each other. Sadly, it was hard to get any good pictures of them, but I will post some videos of the sights (and especially the sounds!) to my Instagram soon!

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I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine
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Me, watching chimps in the rainforest…no make up, wild hair, pure happiness
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Wild figs in Kalinzu forest

After spending a few hours in the rainforest, we briefly visited the Ankole Tea Estate before hopping back on our safari truck and making the long journey back to Kampala. We stopped in Mbarara and Masaka again, as well as at a local roadside produce stand where I bought fresh mangoes for 1000 UGX (about 30 cents USD).

 

Once I finally made it home, I was so tired, so dirty, but oh so satisfied from the beauty and magic of the Western Rift Valley. While I was fortunate to take in all of this beauty on holiday, I am moved to recognize the economic challenges that so many local people there face. I am so grateful for their hospitality—the number of times children and adults alike waved at our safari truck is innumerable. I was especially humbled to stay in such a luxurious place knowing that the villages around me had none of this. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about economic opportunity and disparity in Africa, which I’ll write about soon. But I’m forever changed in a positive way by how the people welcomed me and our group into their home for a few very special days.

ELEPHANTS

 

 

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Ain’t No Mountain High, Ain’t No Valley Low

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I broke my sandal playing soccer! Fortunately, this man was able to repair it on the side of the road for about 25 cents USD. Soccer is big in my office and we play often…I only play barefoot or in tennis shoes now! 

Hello, hello! Long time, no talk. I am a bit behind on my blogging. Part of the reason is because I have been so busy here in Kampala, with both work and with personal travels. But I have to admit the main reason is that I don’t feel like I am “traveling” these days; I feel like I am just living my life here in Uganda.

The last couple of weeks have been full of highs and lows. In an effort to be honest and real, I have to write about both at the risk of sounding like I am complaining. I will try to alternate between the positives and negatives as I catch you, my readers, up on the Kampala life.

 

Pro: My birthday was fabulous!!

I turned 28 years old since I last posted! Thanks to my amazing co-workers and new ex-pat and local friends from here in Kampala, I celebrated my birthday with a surprise party/Ugandan feast during the day and with a dinner at my favorite Kampala restaurant, Cafeserrie, at night. My co-workers also showered me in gifts…I was truly humbled! ❤ This birthday was one of my best yet—it reminded me so much of last year, when I trekked Vinicunca Mountain in Peru and the local villagers threw me a mini-surprise party. It is going to be so hard to beat #27 and #28!

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BIRTHDAY 2

 

Con: “Africa time”

Both locals and ex-pats alike use this term to describe the perpetual lateness of literally everyone and everything here. For example, when messaging our office last week about the start time of a meeting, the head of my organization who is a native Ugandan said “2pm, No Africa time please!” While I can be guilty of being late myself from time to time back in the US, nothing in the US comes close to being on par with “Africa time.” Basically, it means double however long something is supposed to last, or add an hour or so on to any time at which something is supposed to start.

 

This week in particular, I’ve had some bad experiences with Africa time. I think the worst experience was when the bus that was supposed to take our team to Masaka for a training led by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights arrived to pick us up 5 hours late. That’s right, 5 hours….that means we arrived in Masaka at midnight, because of course the 2 hour journey took 5 hours in “Africa time.” We then went to a local restaurant to eat, as no one had eaten dinner. I was so exhausted and nauseated from the trip I could barely eat anything (and also, I think I’ve had my fill of Ugandan food, as described in the next con).

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Exhausted from late night travel…
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All piled into our matatu (a Ugandan taxi) on the trip back from Masaka…fortunately the trip back was not as traumatic!

One thing I love about Africa time is it means more leisure and less stress and worry. It’s been so nice to slow down from my usual NYC pace and live life at a pace that allows me to enjoy each day and live in the moment. However, this week has really made me miss the efficiency of the good ole US of A. I guess one positive is I now have an accurate way to describe the NYC subway system…it’s just running on Africa time!

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Enjoying a stop at the Equator on the way back from Masaka with the team

 

Pro: Jinja, the Source of the Nile

Last weekend in Jinja was amazing! Located about three hours (Africa time) from Kampala, Jinja is home of the source of the Nile River, which flows north through Uganda through South Sudan to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Jinja town was adorable, and full of so many cute art shops. I bought so much here!! (Including lots of jewelry for myself and friends and family, and 2 sets of coasters for my apartment, haha…adulting hard!!) Saturday, I kayaked in the still waters while Carissa rented a stand-up paddle board.

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That evening, we did a “dinner cruise” (which was actually more like a booze cruise) down the Nile at sunset. There were about 20 military members from the US, France, and the UK on the cruise from our campsite, so you can imagine this got to be pretty entertaining. Carissa and I camped in our tent along the banks of the Nile that night…it rained hard but our tent kept out all the water!

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Sunset along the Nile
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Enjoying a “quiet” moment on the “dinner cruise” hahaha

The next day, we went on an all-day rafting trip. This was my first time ever whitewater rafting, and it was a blast!! The rapids were grade 5, which is the most difficult level there is. Our guide, Koa, instructed us expertly as we navigated each rapid. We flipped over twice!!

Between each rapid, there was a nice long stretch of still water where we could relax and swim. I even got pulled out of the boat twice…the military guys would row up next to our boat and use their paddles to pull me in! Then Koa would have to pull me back into the boat. It was pretty hilarious.

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I’m about to fly out of the boat here!

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Pretty sure I am the one already facedown in the water haha

 

Con: Food

I started out really loving the food here, but after 1 month of it, I think I am done. One problem is the portions at lunch are so huge, and I get “in trouble” if I don’t eat “enough”! I have even talked to our cooks twice about giving me smaller portions each day, but they continue to pile it on. Also, matoke is literally served at every meal. I have had enough matoke to last me the rest of my life.

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My appetizing dinner in Masaka…the pea soup actually tasted good though. I didn’t eat the matoke… 😦

The good news is I have found a pizza place here that I like, as it’s my #1 food back in NYC, as well as a place that sells hummus, so hopefully I can survive the next 1.5 months. There’s also a Pizza Hut if I get desperate and homesick enough! And, there is always Cafeserrie, where I go at least once a week now, which has delicious salads, pastas, and pizzas.

 

This week, I am going to have to start being a bit more firm about my lunch at work. As good as it is and as generous as they are, I do not want to be force-fed! I also still want to fit in my clothes when I go back to NYC, lol…

 

Pro: Sunshine and summertime

I have found my happy place here in Kampala—Kabira Country Club. A day pass costs 40,000 shillings (about $11) and it allows me to use the gym and the beautiful pool for the whole day! They also offer massages and have a salon on the premises, and their kitchen serves amazing food right to my chair by the pool!

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A delicious colorful salad by the pool for lunch yesterday at Kabira…my happy spot!

Pro/Con: Work

The pro is I love and admire my dedicated and professional team, and the work we are doing together to promote media freedom is extremely important. However, it’s been a tough week. I wrote an article in the Daily Monitor about a situation involving a radio station here. The Ugandan authorities then called me out personally in a reply published in New Vision that also denied several facts I had included in my write-up that had been vetted by my team. I know my team faces this type of opposition on a regular basis, but it was a first for me. It was a reminder that this work is not easy.

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ucc

 

In addition, last week, I travelled to Masaka (the journey is described above) to participate in a UN human rights field training for journalists. Our UN officer did a fantastic job giving an overview of the background, development, and mechanisms of human rights law for the participants, as well as advising on practical ways to ensure truth in reporting when it comes to human rights violations.

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Working the registration table with D, my manager/”work mom”! Love this lady! ❤

However, a lively and contentious discussion arose when our UN officer stated that LGBT persons are entitled to the universal human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was very taken aback by the refusal of many members of the group to acknowledge that LGBT people are entitled to the same human rights that heterosexual people are entitled to, including the right to life, liberty and security of person regardless of sex or status as clearly laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether or not a person agrees that same-sex marriage is a right, I was shocked that it was even a question that gay people should not enjoy the same universally recognized freedoms as everyone else simply because they are gay.

I had read about the obstacles that members of the LGBT community face here in Uganda, as this is the country that in 2013 tried to pass a law that would sentence gay people to the death penalty. The law was amended to give only a life sentence in prison (“only” is used ironically here) but was later overturned on a technicality. LGBT people still face a prison sentence in Uganda.

It shouldn’t matter whether or not you agree with the LGBT “lifestyle” for religious reasons–no one should die or be in danger for being gay.

The prejudice and misconceptions about the LGBT community became very apparent to me during this training as the discussion unfolded, and I shared my opposing views with the group. I will be perfectly honest—it was quite scary to do this in this setting, but I could not look my gay friends back in the US (and here for that matter) in the eye if I didn’t stand up for them when it mattered. I will be writing more about this at a later date.

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After a trying day at the conference, it was nice to enjoy a pick-up game of soccer with the team!

 

Pro: Dinner parties!

Tonight, Jill and I are hosting our new third roommate, our Airbnb hosts, and our local friend Nat and Jem for a dinner in our apartment! Therefore, it’s time to wrap up this post, as I’ve got to get to hosting 🙂 Until next time!

 

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Boda life

Misadventures at Lake Mburo

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As much as I love Kampala, it didn’t take long before I was ready to get outside the city and get my nature connection going. In just two nights of camping at Lake Mburo last weekend, I managed to accidentally get lost in the bush for an hour with 3 children from a local village, pass out from dehydration, and have the best time with a group of new friends from Kampala—it was truly a “wild” time!

 

My special connection to camping in Africa started a year and a half ago when I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa during Christmas 2015. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, and was starting to feel like I didn’t want to work in finance forever either after 3 years. So, instead of going home to Mississippi/Alabama for the holidays as usual, I decided to go on a mind-clearing, soul-searching trip by myself to…Africa!! Granted, I had never camped before in my life, and had never been anywhere besides Europe and Mexico at this point, but I figured, why not!?

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This trip truly changed my life, and I credit my 10 days in the wild with giving me the perspective I needed to set some decisions in motion and fully live out this “quarter-life crisis” thing. I also made some amazing friends who continue to be very dear to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I found part of myself sleeping under the stars and amongst the wildlife in southern Africa that Christmas.

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So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Mburo in western Uganda and camp for three days last weekend with some new friends I had made over the last few weeks, my unequivocal answer was yes! The Mihingo Lodge was hosting its annual marathon/half-marathon/10k/5k/mountain bike race to raise funds for conservation, so my new American friend Carissa and I immediately started looking up tent and sleeping bag rentals and transportation to the park. We were soon joined in the planning by our new British friends Nick and Shaun, as well as Carissa’s school friend Charles (whom I had also met in the airport the night I arrived!).

 

After almost getting ripped off by a guy from Facebook who wanted to charge us a 30 USD “delivery fee” for renting his camping equipment, Carissa and I decided just to buy our own equipment from the local store Game (it’s a Ugandan chain store owned by Wal-Mart, and it sells just about everything). Friday was Hero’s Day in Uganda, and as all offices were closed, we were able to set off that morning with a ride we had found (also on Facebook…there’s a “Kampala Ex Pats” page). I rode to our meeting point loaded down on the boda with my tent, 2 sleeping bags, and backpack…it was quite the sight.

 

We arrived at Lake Mburo that afternoon after crossing the Equator (!), and Carissa and I pitched our tent near our friends.

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Camp Masters!

The delicious camp meals were served from a “kitchen” tent, and we all enjoyed some pasta and drinks before turning in. The bathroom situation was pretty much non-existent—the toilets were holes it the ground surrounded on 3 sides by a screen, and the “showers” were buckets hanging from trees that never seemed to have water. However, this was all part of the fun!! There is freedom in being dirty!

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The next morning, it was time to race. Even though I used to run all the time and finished a marathon just before my last Africa trip, I barely do anymore, so I signed up for the 5k with Shaun, Charles, and tons of children from local villages (lol). The rest of our camping group decided to do the 10k with the rest of the adults, so I was at least happy to have some fellow underachievers in Shaun and Charles. 🙂

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Who’s up for a 5k fun run?!

At around 8am, we set off. Shaun and Charles quickly left me in the dust (lol), but I had a new running buddy—this little kid from a local village. He didn’t speak English (they speak luyankole in this part of western Uganda) so he couldn’t tell me his name, so I called him “Little Dude.” After running along beside me for the first half-mile, Little Dude dropped back to within 5-10 feet of me for the rest of the race.

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I should have known something was up when it was just me and Little Dude (LD) on the trail. In one of my worst blonde moments ever to date, I thought the blue arrows were for the 5k and the green arrows were for the half-marathon. In reality, it was reversed. As I followed the blue arrows, Little Dude followed me, and before too long it was just me, him, some zebras, and the occasional mountain biker.

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LOST?!

This didn’t feel right. “Are we going the right way?” I asked LD. He just grinned at me blankly. After 40 minutes, I knew we should have finished the 5k, and we were officially lost. Ironically, LD and I came across two more local children who didn’t speak English and had also gotten lost on the trail. They too started walking along with me, pointing at the zebras as we passed. (I had given up running at this point!)

 

“You’ve got an entourage, don’t you?!” said an older British man, as he whizzed past me and my 3 new friends on his mountain bike.

 

“Haha, I guess so. Actually, we’re lost. Can you tell me how to get back to the campsite?” I asked.

 

“Sorry, don’t know!” he said, as he left us in the dust.

 

“What a jerk!” I thought. We were at the 1-hour mark, and while I wasn’t worried yet, I knew the kids would need water soon. LD was lagging behind, so I offered him a piggyback ride.

 

Fortunately, a nice British lady soon passed us on her mountain bike, offered us water and told us the general direction back to camp. We were about 8 kms away at this point! “I’ll send help for you guys from up ahead,” she said as she continued along her trail ride. As we started walking back toward the general direction of camp, a lodge worker soon approached us in a Land Rover…we were rescued!! We shared some good laughs about it in the truck on the way back to camp.

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The 2 other local kids Little Dude and I came across…at least we can laugh about this now, right?!

 

LD and I ended up crossing the finish line at about 1 hour and 30 minutes…my worst 5k time ever!

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Looking and feeling rough

 

After relaxing for a bit back at the camp, Shaun, Charles, my new British friend Becky, and I decided to ride around and see more of the park in Becky’s vehicle. After loading up and getting about 10 yards down the dirt road, we had a flat. Shaun and I watched as Charles and Becky expertly started putting the spare on. All of the sudden, my head started spinning and my vision blurred.

 

“I’ve never felt like this before,” I said, as I leaned against Shaun’s shoulder. While this sounds quite romantic, that’s the last thing it was. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground with Becky holding my hand, Shaun holding a cold bottle of water against my neck, and Charles looking into my eyes (he’s a trained paramedic!) I felt like I was waking up from a nap, but apparently I had fainted. I have never passed out before in my life, and it was a weird sensation!! I drank lots of water and some electrolyte tablets for the rest of the day, and felt completely fine afterward. Moral of the story—don’t forget to drink water after getting lost in the African bush for an hour!

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Shaun and I re-enacting the earlier events of the day at Lake Mburo…again, at least we can laugh about it now, right?!

After these near-death experiences, the rest of the weekend was drama-free (thank goodness). We took a boat safari around Lake Mburo later that afternoon, and spotted several hippo, birds, eagles, and warthogs!

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Hard to see, but there are some hippos and an eagle in this picture!

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Back at the camp, we enjoyed a second beautiful sunset before pulling out our flashlights and playing games before going to sleep.

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The next morning, we had one last campsite meal, and I enjoyed the “bush coffee” they brew in a huge pot over the  campfire while taking down our tent and packing up. Becky was kind enough to give Carissa and me a ride back to the big city of Kampala (“the big K” as I’ve started to call it), as our previous ride had already left a day early.

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We crossed the Equator again!

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You’d think after all the craziness, I’d give up camping for a while…but I am actually going again this coming weekend in Jinja! All I need to do is pay more attention to where I am going, and drink more water. ❤

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Some zebras and crested cranes–the national bird of Uganda!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Meeting in the Desert

“I cared for you in the wilderness, In the land of drought.” Hosea 13:5

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Dirty and relaxed from the Dead Sea, NYU Law iTrek spent Sunday night getting even dirtier at a Bedouin campsite in the Judean desert. Deserts are mystical places, and I had been looking forward to this part of the trip in particular.

Area where they found the Dead Sea scrolls!

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We arrived after a bumpy ride from the Dead Sea and settled into our tent (all ~45 us slept under the same “roof”!) before enjoying a delicious traditional Bedouin meal. Following the meal, we gathered around a fire in the hospitality tent and enjoyed Arabic coffee while learning more about Bedouin culture.


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Then, a group of us left the campsite and set off into the emptiness under the full moon for a period of meditation. After gathering in a circle, each of us set off to our own spot in the desert. I found a nice flat rock to use as a pillow and leaned back to gaze at the stars, allowing my mind to completely open up. I picked up a small stone to hold in my hand as I reached out to God and connected with my surroundings. As I laid in the very desert where Jesus was tempted for 40 days and nights, and where Moses and his people wandered for 40 years, I couldn’t help but feel small, undeserving, and immensely grateful for the opportunities and lessons of the past year. I thought about my own wandering and temptation. I found myself thinking and praying, until I heard Doron call us back together into a larger circle.

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The rest of the night back at camp involved wine, a bonfire, s’mores, spontaneous singing around the campfire, and deep conversations. No wifi, just each other. I ended up finally going to bed around 4am.

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We all woke up a few hours later for an early morning camel ride through the desert–tracing back over the spot where I had meditated the night before. I had accidentally ridden a camel the day before at the Dead Sea (I was just supposed to be taking a picture, but the camel started standing up all of the sudden)! My second camel ride ever went a bit more smoothly. Mahmoud, my camel, was a joy to start the day with!

Me with Mahmoud ❤️



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After our camel ride, we left for Masada, where we spent the morning hiking and learning about its history from Doron. Masada is a fortress that overlooks the Dead Sea, and Herod built a few palaces for himself atop the fortification. The Romans sieged Masada in 73 AD. Faced with violent defeat, 960 Jewish men, women, and children committed mass suicide within the walls of Masada to avoid a cruel future at the hands of the invaders.




Masada has become a symbol of unity for the Zionist movement and the nation of Israel in the last few centuries, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001. “Masada shall not fall again” has become a mantra used by the Israeli army. Besides viewing the ruins and learning the history, we were able to soak in stunning views of the Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan in the horizon. A rabbi also works diligently and continually to transcribe the Torah at the site.

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Masada is extremely steep, and we planned to take the cable car back down after climbing up the Roman ramp. However, the cable car was broken! We set off down the snake path under a scorching sun, finally reaching the bus after the equivalent of 52 flights of stairs. My legs are still sore!

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The mystery of the Judean desert provided more than I could have thought to ask for. As one friend shared after our meditation, our existence is highly improbable (from a scientific perspective) and highly miraculous (from a spiritual perspective). You are the only you that will ever exist, and I am the only me that will ever exist. The rich emptiness and expanse of the desert provided the perfect backdrop to allow these realizations to reverberate and settle.

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One unexpected blessing of this trip has been getting to know fellow NYU and Israeli law students. At school back in New York, it’s often difficult to get to know others on a deeper level. But that has been a constant theme of this trip, and I feel it was also one of many of the desert’s surprises.

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Up next… Jerusalem.


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