Monday, March 12, 2012

(Running in) Bwindi


Note: Pictures and proof and all that fun stuff to come... Sorry this is long --  as you can see, I got some power, and internet!

Training for the Abel-Tasman 36k Trail Run has officially begun – I could not think of a better place to initiate this program. (Details of this race and why I chose to sign up to come.)
To place Bwindi on an aesthetic map of Uganda, I need to explain what I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

I was shocked at how green and lush Uganda was when the wheels on the plane touched down. The contrast between the vast deserts of Tanzania and Kenya and the lush forests of Uganda really magnified the beauty of this country. That being said, the eastern part of this country is put to shame by the forests of the west.

Arrival at the southwestern part of Uganda brought swelling green hills filled with bright green tea farms and banana trees (they look like little palm trees) for as far as I could see. These farms fill the sides of the mountains in beautiful patterns, like patchwork quilts. There are volcanoes that lie in “no man’s land” literally and figuratively. They climb from the ground that lies between Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), but they grow to a height somewhere between the earth and heaven. They surprised me, growing so high, “something I need to climb,” I thought. And then decided to extend my time in Rwanda for a few days to be sure I set foot on the Voncans National Forest in Rwanda.

The girls (Caroline and Marshell) went gorilla trekking this morning. I’ve heard people raving about the gorilla trekking since I got here, but at a hefty 500 bucks to spend an hour with the gorillas, the same as the cost of flying to India, I opted out. Ummm, let’s see… “India? Gorillas? India? Gorillas?” Sorry, animal lovers – there was never really a contest about it. I realize that there may be a day when I regret not going to see these massive, beautiful primates. But when I woke up this morning and realized that I hadn’t been awoken by an alarm clock, rooster, or warthog, I was very happy. I laid in bed in my very own tent and dozed in and out of sleep. Hello, heaven.

When I could tell that the gorilla trekkers had departed for the day I crept out of my tent, enjoyed a quiet breakfast (bread, eggs, fruit – as always) with the Norwegians then retreated top of the hill to overlook the home of the gorillas as I partook in my morning ritual of indulging in the most necessary of liquid drugs. Peace with myself on the top of the hill overlooking Uganda’s grandest gem. These moments are rare and constant at the same time. I’m hoping one day I’ll find the words to make sense of it.

The Norwegians told me to run to the “Top of the world” … down the road, through the village, till I see a sign for the school then veer right on a little trail and head towards the top of the hill.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 100% of the things I love about this place are best magnified by a good, long, solo run. Running through villages onto trails, through forests, up hills and down the dirt roads has brought me the most unusual connections with locals that just aren’t possible from the safety of the pope-mobile. Sometimes these interactions are funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes intimate, always appreciated.  No less important than the connection with the communities is the fact that I can get to nooks and crannies of places I would never see any other way. The sights I’ve been gifted with while on my feet are some that I will treasure forever.
Happy little munchkins gathering wood for cooking.
Today was no exception. The villagers are different here. They are much more friendly than those I’d met in Kyabirwa, less aggressive. I like to believe it’s because they are surrounded by a landscape of exceptional beauty – seemingly perpetual green land and cool air (hurray for the departure of oppressive heat!!!). They didn’t chase me down the road, didn’t even so much as run to the edge of their properties. The children would stop and stare – sometimes wave. The women would smile and say “hello”… men just grinned and stared at me. It is rare, and doesn’t make a lot of sense for a white woman to be running alone on these rural, mountainous roads. Their confusion was apparent but their warmth a sweet treat for me.

I started running with music again on my last run in Kyabirwa. I wished I’d started earlier. Music provides the perfect balance of being able to connect with the local earth and the local people but still keep the pieces of me that I hold tight to.

That day, my last run in Kyabirwa as I approached the turn off to my home I was oddly alone on the dirt road until I noticed a cow running full speed towards me. It scared me! (Do cows charge people?) He had horns, BIG horns! I stopped running in hope that he would too, stop running. He did, which is when I realized that he had a leash around his neck (hilarious) and that a woman was running behind him – chasing him down the road. As she got closer she smiled – which told me that the cow was not going to impale me with its horn. As they passed I soaked in the ability to be alone on the road again, U2 providing a soundtrack to this experience. Around the next bend in the road I noticed a little girl, maybe 9 years old, walking – wearing literal rags. It’s not rare to see little kids walking on the road in rags. What is rare is for them to 1) not know who I am because of the fact that I am the mzungu teaching at their school (meaning, she must not be going to school) and 2) to not ask me for something (money). She smiled the sweetest smile and greeted me “I am fine” – which is what many people say before you even say a word to them. It’s the first English sentence they learn in school – the teacher walks in and the students stand up and communally say “good day” and then the teacher says “How are you?” and then the kids say “We are fine.” And then she tells them to sit down and they sit and say, “We are sitting down.” (It is really pretty funny and sweet – I have it on video.)

So based on the reaction of the little girl, I figured she didn’t know much English. Until she said to me “What’s your name?” I pulled my headphones out of my ear and we exchanged names. We quietly walked along the road together, hand in hand, not saying much. I pulled a headphone to my ear and heard Miranda Lambert singing “The House that Built Me.” I placed the other headphone in the little girl’s ear and we listened together on the dusty hot rot road in rural Uganda. She giggled along as she listened, probably never having heard anything like this before. When Miranda stopped singing it was time for me to turn off the road to the small path towards home. The little one gave me the headphone back and said “goodbye.” I wished her a good afternoon and turned. About 10 steps towards home I hear her yell “Stephan!” (this is how Africans pronounce my name) I turned and looked toward her and said “Yes?” quietly, with her sweet smile she said “Thank you.”

I turned – got out of her sight, found shade, doubled over, and cried. I’m not sure if it’s because of her sweetness, because of how much she’s going to miss in this life – as a totally valid, beautiful human who certainly deserves at least the opportunities I was given, or if it’s because I realize I cannot help her. I cannot save her. To this day, the memory of that moment makes the hairs on my arms raise and my eyes fill with tears. Small sweet moments like this whack me over the head like a baseball bat, beating gratitude out of me.

I ran today with Sara who (unbeknownst to her) produced an album for me a year a half ago. I still listen to it obsessively. Truth: this trip is rehab for me - in a sense. It felt exactly like that as I climbed my way to the Top of the World and kissed (with my feet) the ground that overlooks the home of the gorillas – magic land – I’m sure. In every way, I am stronger than I was the day I left my home – 70 days ago. I’m still confused. Still sad. Sometimes furious. But moments at the Top of the World do their best to contend with the greatness of the love lost and the anger that accompanies it. I see God there, and I see myself there. I am enlightened just a little bit at a time.

From the Top of the world I ventured further down the road (cause it was downhill!). I ran past a woman who was so beautiful that I had to stop. She had a baby strapped to her back, a beautiful orange cloth covering her head and an umbrella in her hand (all of this is normal, but she was exceptional for some reason). I wanted to take her picture. I asked her if I could but she just stared at me. She looked at my jewelry and the phone in my hand and said something. I reached out my hand to shake hers and her face lit up with a smile. As our hands embraced I said to her “you are so beautiful.” She had no idea what I was saying. I asked to take her picture… she didn’t respond and walked away. I snapped the picture from behind and gave her 2,000 shillings for allowing me to do so. When I did, she asked for another 1,000. I said “Nope. Webale! (“thank you” in Luganda and Lusoga) BYE!” She smiled, laughed and said in English “BYE!” We were mutually content when I turned to go bounding down the road.
Not an amazing photo - but she was amazing.
Little moments like these… they fill up the space that didn't exist until the the space was created. I could sit for hours and write and blab on about this continent (as I have done), but would never do it justice. 

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing. You are amazing.
    I always read your blog - keep writing and filling me up with the beauty/emotion/joy/love/injustice/magic/feelings/emptiness/fulfillment/timelessness that is Africa.
    You need to blog to get it out of your head, I need to read to keep it in mine.
    I love you so much.