Tag Archives: anticipation

A year ago

I woke up this morning thinking about Fort Portal. Uganda and the DRC have been on my mind a lot lately. I can’t believe it’s been a year. Not that Fort Portal was exactly a year ago. Exactly a year would have been, let’s see, I think Kampala? Wow, early morning Kampala, trudging through the still-sleeping streets with too much luggage to catch the Post Bus.

But Fort Portal, perhaps more than any other place I can remember, represents the edge of adventure. That night, the first night in Fort Portal, when we all gathered around a little table, over a beer, and had The Conversation about medical conditions and next of kin and emergency insurance information. On the edge of venturing into the unknown of the eastern DRC. That tension, than intensity. A plan finally coming together. The introspection. No-one really mentioning the emotions just below the surface, but all the senses heightened. The incredible awareness of anticipation.

The moments, the images of Fort Portal are particularly clear to me. Perhaps because it was a place I truly fell in love with. Perhaps precisely because of that anticipation. The brightly coloured selection of fruit at the little market. The honey shop. The cranes by the river. The goats on what looked like a sports field. The men with their bicycles selling huge bunches of green bananas. The aid-agency land-cruisers – a different selection to Gulu or Bunia. The bank, looking just like a small-town, farming-centre South African bank. The crazy statue of Sir Gerald Portal. The round building on the hill, the purpose of which was never discovered. The food – some of the best in Uganda. The cold beer. The cool evening.

The Rwenzoris in the distance a path not taken. Early in the trip planning, we had been considering hiking in the Rwenzoris. I’m glad we didn’t because the path we chose was incredible, but the road not take always remains. One day I would like to go back and explore the “mountains of the moon”. One day.

It’s been a year since an incredible trip with incredible people into the heart of a place so often maligned, ignored and misunderstood. SADC has agreed to send troops into the DRC to enforce whatever peace is agreed upon. Rumours continue to surface of Rwandan and Ugandan involvement. Perhaps one day it will all be over and the eastern DRC will claim its position as a truly magical place to visit.

Perhaps I’ll go back. Perhaps I’ll go somewhere else. Waking up in the early hours of this morning, I could taste, again, the cool, just-rained air, the hotel sheets, the mosquito net, the excitement of that morning in Fort Portal. The edge of adventure. The anticipation of wonder.

Journey begun/Return

Last packing, last call to family, last day of work, last night. Waking early, too early. The driver picking me up is early. Hasty last-minute checks and I’m gone. My pack, my passport and a world awaiting.

Departure seems so distant now, so overwrought. Was I really that terrified? Was that really me?

This seems so hollow now, this back, returned, sitting in an office, walking around my house that doesn’t feel like mine. The familiar made unfamiliar by a whirlwind of change. The empty evenings weigh heavily on me. Mornings, I struggle up the hill to work, struggling to find the rhythm, the routine. Struggling to want to find it.

We get to Durban airport early. It was a free lift with a colleague whose flight is earlier than mine. I have admin to do, but first breakfast. A last bit of South African-ness before departure. From the window of the Spur, I can see the VIP pick-up/drop-off point for COP 17. I wonder if I’ll see any famous people. I wonder if I’ve missed any through my tiredness while I’ve been here already.

At the money-changing place, the teller asks me if I’ve ever done business with them before. I say no but she finds me on her system anyway. I had forgotten – before I left for Korea. What a strange, distant time ago. The twisted strands of stories linked together over time.

I buy a book. I drink coffee. I wait. I miss a call from Richard. I call back and John tells me Richard is at Cappello at OR Tambo Airport. My favourite. I haven’t even left Durban yet. I wonder idly if today’s pilot will be Captain Sunshine. Quite seriously, I was flown to Joburg by someone called Captain Sunshine just a few days ago.

The trip back from Uganda to Durban was long. Tired. An early start in Kampala. Waking up what seemed like just moments after a last video diary and a goodbye to the friends with whom we’d shared so many weird and wonderful experiences. Our taxi was waiting. He waited for ages because he had the time wrong. It’s starting to get light. Last sights of Kampala. The trip to Entebbe. First glimpse of the lake. We’re early. Coffee and samosas for breakfast. Waiting. A day of half-finished cups of coffee.

I get to Joburg and head across to Cappello. My airport. Familiar, friendly, home. The one constant in all my journeys. I’m glad we’re leaving from here. I find Richard and Reneilwe and we have coffee and chat. They change money, then up to the African airlines section to check in. RwandAir is right on the edge. They quibble over luggage weights. We move things around. Suddenly it’s fine. Someone else in the queue appears to be trying to take the contents of a house on the plane. Our flight is late; the check-in staff don’t seem to think it is worth mentioning. They hand us boarding passes and we’re set.

The weather doesn’t help my mood. After the gorgeous heat of Congo and Uganda, it is chilly here and misty and raining. I long to stay in bed and pretend the world out there is somehow different.

The work I rushed back for gets done in a day. I find myself with nothing to occupy my mind. I try to throw myself into academic work but the feeling of emptiness keeps coming back.

Through security at OR Tambo, Johannesburg. The passport control person looks at my passport picture twice. I’ve cut my hair for this trip and look nothing like that picture. We still have ages to wait but eventually it is time. We leave from the main international section, gate A10. Near where I caught the Delta Flight in August. Not the downstairs section with the African flights. I wonder if this is where I caught my flight to Korea. I can’t seem to place it. I love the feeling of this place – excitement mixed with nerves. It’s strange to be here with other people.

Entebbe to Kigali. I take the window seat so that I can see the lake. Africa from the air. All day, I notice other destinations. From Entebbe, a flight leaves for Juba. The in-flight Air Uganda magazine is all about Bujumbura. Kigali sits, tantalising, just beyond the airport windows. I muse and wish and contemplate, not wanting the journey to end. In Kigali, our flight is never listed on the board. We wait for RwandAir to return out passports and boarding passes with no idea if we’re on time. I walk. Pace, really – the airport is not that big. I look at all the things in the duty-free shops. I contemplate buying coffee but we have no local currency and I’m out of dollars. I am restless

Kigali at night. The flight lands way later than it is supposed to. I’ve lost track of time. It is night and the airport staff are rushing. They hand out pre-printed boarding passes to passengers transferring to Uganda. But not to everyone. I’m asked to take my boarding pass and go through but I don’t fancy the idea of losing the others – I don’t even know where I’m going. Confusion. Someone’s passport gets lost. It delays the flight further. Finally we’re gone. I’m sitting far from the others. Across the aisle from me is what can only be a South African farmer/game-ranger – complete with hat. He appears to be taking care of two small children. Or perhaps they’re just unaccompanied minors and he is a Good Samaritan. He tells me he is going to visit his girlfriend.

The shops are the strangest. Everyone said I’d find it hard to come back. So many people seem to find themselves revolted by the variety and luxury of shops back home after a trip like this. I don’t. I love the shops. I love the variety. I walk the aisles of my local Spar and feel joy that I live in a country where everyone has this kind of choice and opportunity. The first time I walked into the meat section, I nearly cried. And the fresh fruit and vegetables grown right nearby but washed and packaged and properly refrigerated so they haven’t gone off by the time you buy them. Fresh milk and cheese and ice-cold sodas. Herbs and spices. Kampala has these things – at Shoprite if nowhere else – but I keep thinking of Bunia and Epulu. And then I’m not thinking of those places. I’m thinking of home. I’m thinking of how this is the goal, the aspiration of so many African people.

Landing in Uganda. Entebbe is a much more impressive airport than Kigali. It looks bigger and more modern. There are sky-bridges. We go inside and fill out the obligatory forms and I find myself wondering, again, if anyone ever reads those forms. USD50 for a visa. Digital photo, fingerprint scanner. Richard gets a sticker, we just get stamps. Nearby, a team of cleaners is washing the floor by throwing wet cloths across the tiles and then pushing and pulling them, on hands and knees.

Flying back to Joburg. Richard falls asleep. I have a book and I read a little but I’m distracted. I feel like talking. I end up watching the bad teen movie they’re showing on the plane. We land easily. Joburg is green and beautiful under building thunderstorn clouds. So many houses, so many tar roads. Through passport control, luggage already on the carousel, meet John at the doors. I barely even noticed the little thrill of walking through those doors; I must be tired. Then check-in for my last flight and coffee. Good, proper coffee with hot milk and conversation. The last conversation. The travel-bubble bursts.

We find our driver at Entebbe and head off to our backpackers/guesthouse. At one point, the vehicle took a pot-holed turn too sharply and the spare tire was knocked off the bottom of the car. The driver and Richard fixed it and we went on. We arrive at ICU and checked into the room. Our fourth travel-companion, for this leg of the trip, is already there. She wakes up and joins us at the rooftop bar. We are all too tired to sleep, too much to say, too much nervous energy. Richard updates his journal, setting the pattern for the trip. Here we sit, finally, in the middle of the night, in a rooftop bar in Kampala.

Return. I have moments of feeling that it’s all pointless. I feel like a cliché. The ruthless, heartless, profit-driven businessman goes on a holiday to [insert name of poor country here] and comes back wanting to sell everything and become a good person. But I work in development already. I’m already on a path to working in places like the ones I’ve just seen. I am frustrated. I find myself not wanting to settle back into routine. I’m so scared the routine will swallow me up and weigh me down. I don’t want to get stuck. I struggle to focus, I struggle with the idea of waiting. I’m tired of waiting. I want to pack my bags and go now and do and be there. Not to be here.

I wake up to misty rain. Soft, soaking, ordinary rain. That is the metaphor. That afternoon, Christmas Day, just after we returned from wandering through the second-largest rainforest in the world, there was a thunderstorm. Watching the storm build up so quickly and the storm light turning everything golden-green. The storm was huge and powerful. The air was electric. As we walked back from town, the rain started. By the time we got back, we were soaked. So powerful, so beautiful, so exciting.So far removed from the soft, soaking ordinariness of return.

Zambia – but not really

Zambia. A first visit to a country I’ve never seen before. Under normal circumstances, this would be a momentous occasion for me. It would occupy my thoughts and writing for weeks. This trip has been different, not because Zambia is not a fascinating and exciting place to visit but because so much is going on that there is limited space in my brain to celebrate the experience. I haven’t even used the free time I’ve had to explore the country. In fact, I have barely left the hotel. It’s a nice hotel, one of the nicest places I’ve stayed in a while, but I’m fairly certain I’m not getting to see the real Zambia. I keep wishing there was more time, less stuff happening, so that I could get a proper sense of the place.

Instead, I seem to be spending all my time working and stressing and worrying about the next adventure. Work has occupied an awful lot of time this week – being at a workshop always seems to result in things that simply cannot wait until I get home. I’ve also been trying to write a piece that refused to get written. And sneaking in a little time to catch up with an old friend I haven’t seen properly in years.

So, it seems, sadly, that Zambia will have to wait until next time. Yet, knowing how way leads on to way (with apologies to Robert Frost), I wonder if there will be a ‘next time’. With so many places to see, so much amazing continent to explore, will I be back here any time soon? Am I sacrificing the chance to see this amazing country because I am too caught up in anticipating the next one – in this case Uganda. Is Zambia any less worthy of my attention and time and awe than Uganda or the DRC? Or is this just the way life goes – that some places are fleeting moments without ever really understanding, so that other places can be true experiences of wonder?

I’ll be visiting rural Zambia over the next two days and I plan to do my best to focus on Zambia and understanding this place but it’s really quite hard to focus with the Uganda and DRC trip looming so large. Three weeks from today, I’ll be at the airport in Johannesburg, checking in for a flight to Uganda.