Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Travel Jitters

See post from Feb. 10 for context

Cultural Chaos Part 2: 
Day 1; 7:02 am: After about 25 minutes of loading and rearranging, we finally pull out of the driveway. The dog barks from within the compound, his head protruding through the gate’s peephole, his cocked expression perplexed at the sudden disappearance of all his people. Harriet calls goodbye out the front window and returns to her conscientious examination of Ugandan maps. Seven-year-old Loveline sits behind me with a sprawling grin, her right foot taps in an anxious beat on my seatbelt. Before we even make it down the street (note: my street is exactly one house in length), she asks to pull over so she can urinate. Gracious re-adjusts himself in the back seat as Loveline scampers from the car, pulls down her leggings, and squats on my perimeter lawn. Gracious’ 3-year-old son, Kevin (named after an action figure), remains a statue on his dad’s left knee. The toddler glares at me and studies my movements skeptically. Gracious pets his son’s shoulder and slides his other hand reassuringly along his wife’s knee. He mumbles to her as Loveline hops back in the car. She hugs the 9-month-old girl to her chest as Loveline settles at her side. 

I start driving again and head towards the main road. As I merge onto Entebbe Road, Gracious announces that his wife is terrified of cars (things that would have been nice to know before strapping her in a car for 20+ hours of driving in two days). On cue, she flings a blanket over her head to shield herself from the moving world. I peer through the rear-view mirror to see a rocking purple mound where a mother and baby were once visible. My eyes return to the potholes. Gasps escape the mound with each bump. Gracious nudges her and chastises in Luganda. “I want to enroll her in the army, teach her a gun” he proclaims loudly in English, a language completely foreign to his wife. I navigate around a stalled mutatu in the left lane, unsure how to appropriately respond. I look in the mirror, his smile offers a hint. “Then she will not be afraid of cars,” he exclaims with a laugh. Harriet chuckles in the front seat. I force half a laugh as I try to imagine the purple mound behind me bearing a riffle. My mind is still searching for a link between comfort with guns and comfort with vehicles, but Loveline breaks my thoughts with another toilet plea. 7:18, pit stop #2; this time she squats in the ditch beside a chapatti stall. The lack of car movement suddenly reveals that the infant beneath the purple blanket has wet herself. Harriet notices as well and recommends we recommence our journey; “then the smell won’t catch us,” she says. I try not to breath or let my face give away my discomfort.

A few minutes later as the pothole dodging continues, Gracious calls out for a plastic bag; the three-year-old is motion sick and puking. A chain effect, the purple mound and Loveline follow the toddler’s lead. I stop again to let three back seat passengers empty the contents of their anxious stomachs on the side of the road. 7:27. Pitstop#3. I make note of our whereabouts—even with Gracious’ shortcut and a complete absence of traffic (a rarity in this city), we are not even half way out of Kampala.

Mints are distributed. Nerves are calmed. We start yet again.

7:47: We make our final pit stop within Kampala. This time, Loveline dodges a group of goats and relieves herself beyond the edge of a lime green building.

8:14: My passengers’ digestive tracks and bladders are sufficiently empty. My seatbelt has stopped contracting in an anxious rhythm. The purple blanket has moved to a bag on the floor. The toddler is looking out the window while Gracious identifies cows and trees in heavily-accented English. As we spin around the Northern Bi-pass, finally exiting Kampala, I breath a sigh of relief that the first round of jitters have effectively been quelled. Only another 19+ hours in a confined moving vehicle to go!   

Thursday, February 9, 2012

All You Need is Love

“After that trip, you’ll have enough stories to write for a year!” a friend joked as I told her of my plans to take the people who work for me and their families on their first safari. I guess she’s right; if you pack 4 adults and 3 children under the age of 7 (6 Ugandans + 1 muzungu; 6 completely inexperienced travelers); 2 full and 2 half English speakers (with a total of 3 first languages); 2 days’ worth of food; 1 tent; 1 headlamp; 1 strobe light; and a leaking kerosene stove into a 5-seater RAV4 destined for a distant game park, cultural chaos is bound to ensue…. and ensue it did. Alas, the first of (likely) many intercultural musings from the trip.

Cultural intersection #1, in honor of Valentine’s Day:
I occasionally lament playing the role of bachelorette, the never ending search through the muck of leftover men…or perhaps undiscovered gems (so I like to believe). I still maintain an utterly idealistic picture of a man who will whisk me off my feet and cling to the hope that one day, I will “just know he’s the one.” As I wait/date/search, it is easy to bemoan the required effort, to loathe the disappointments that accompany such romantic notions.

Over a shared flask of Waragi our first night, I discovered some of my travel companions took a vastly different approach towards spouse-hunting. Three years ago, my gardener, Gracious, informed his village he would be returning home to choose a wife for his 30th birthday. Several women appealed for consideration. Gracious returned to his home village, met his (present) wife--once, talked with her on the phone-- twice, asked for her consent to marry-- was approved, and held a wedding just one week later. Only a month after their wedding, Gracious’ 19-year-old bride was pregnant with their first child.

In the U.S. it takes engaged couples longer to settle on a florist than it took Gracious and his wife to meet, marry, and reproduce. Through my western lens, this approach towards marriage is both foreign and slightly unsettling. And yet, as I attempt to extricate my cultural biases, I am struck by the problems that such an approach eliminates (think: a limited number of awkward first dates; far less psychoanalysis of compatibility; an absence of breakups; no pangs over flirtatious text message phrasing…). At the base of it, there is something oddly romantic about the faith a couple (that know next to nothing about each other) put in the construct of marriage, in the idea of fostered love, commitment, and family.

I still gravitate towards Westernized conceptions of love. Yet, as Valentine’s Day rolls around (and I am just as single as ever), I can’t help but chuckle at the idea of an announcement in the San Jose Mercury proclaiming my intent to marry. A line-up of men to choose from might not be so bad!