Playing tourist: It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it

Posted: November 1, 2007 in Blog

This week, the newspaper asked me to put away my (metaphorical) reporter’s fedora and take out my (thankfully metaphorical) gaudy tourist hat for a series of articles on the region’s cultural sites.

Considering many of the stories I normally report on can, at times, weigh a little heavy, it was a welcome change.

I have spent most of this week traipsing around, taking day trips, snapping a million pictures of monkeys and statues and trees and asking tour guides the types of questions they’ve answered a thousand times over— all to test the readiness of the biggest tourist hot spots for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads’ of Government Meeting.

Earlier this week I visited the tombs of tribal kings, then went to a shrine built to Christian converts who were slaughtered by a tribal king in the late 19th century, and Uganda’s National Museum. All were educational and mostly interesting. It was nice to not have to take notes for a change, but to instead just take things in and otherwise enjoy the sights and sounds of places I had not yet visited.

Today I had a packed agenda centred around a trip west to Entebbe to visit the botanical gardens and the wildlife education centre (which is most certainly not a zoo… yeesh, you only make that mistake once around tour guides). I was up and out the door shortly after 5 a.m. to get some work done in the newsroom and then get an early matatu west to Entebbe.

The boda-boda dropped me at the old taxi park (there are two crazy, chaotic taxi parks in the city where matatus heading all over the city, and the country, gather in a frenzy akin to a colony of ants that just discovered honey). I waded my way through the crowds and found the matatu heading for Entebbe.

Getting into these matatus is always a bit of a crap-shoot. They don’t leave on any fixed schedule. Instead, they leave when they are full. Sometimes you are in luck and the van leaves moments after you hop on. Other times, you are one of the first to arrive and end up sitting and sitting and sitting, to the point where vendors making their rounds begin recognizing you and know in advance that no, you are not interested in buying a watch. Or a fly swatter.

Today, I was in luck. I arrived just as the van was filling up and even got a spot in the first row of seats behind the driver (the three rows behind this one operate like a puzzle that has to be disassembled completely each time someone wants out).

And so, in short order, we were off. The matatu, as always, was full. To my right was a young man who was busy drawing up plans for a solar panel. His precision lines were somewhat compromised by the steady procession of potholes. To my left was the source of the trip’s joy (I at first meant that to be sarcastic, but I think now it is mostly genuine). A woman had climbed on after me, with her baby daughter. We were tight, with four of us plus the baby on one van seat.

As we drove I became increasingly aware that this little girl was staring at me. I glanced down to find a pair of saucer eyes and a slacked jaw, as though she was staring at a UFO that just landed in her cornfield. I smiled and waved at her. She slowly reached out and poked my cheek, as though to verify that, yes, this muzungu sighting was legit.

This poking and prodding continued for most of the hour-long trip. Much to the rest of the delight of the other passengers.

I was eventually dropped at the side of the dirt road leading down to the Wildlife Centre, and walked in for a fun hour or so of viewing animals— in particular watching the monkeys fight and observing the hyenas chase after birds (kind of like watching the futile hunt of a cat going after a butterfly). It was fun and relaxing, and after making a few notes about the facility’s readiness for the increased tourism during Chogm and talking with a couple of staff, I set off for the nearby botanical gardens.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. Other sites I had heard about before visiting them. The botanical gardens was a site of which I knew very little. But I walked in, bought my ticket, paid extra because I had my camera (genious price scheme: set a ticket price and then charge the same rate again “if” they have a camera. Who doesn’t bring a camera to botanical gardens?)

A guide materialized out of thin air, and by “materialize” I mean “came sprinting down the road at a track star’s pace because somehow in 30 seconds word had spread that there was a visitor who had arrived without a guide of his own”. So off we went for an hour-plus walk around the 75 hectare grounds of the gardens, which slope down to Lake Victoria.

It was a beautiful setting, and not so much “gardens” as “dense forest”. The variety of trees was incredible. There was a towering 200-year old mahogany tree that would have had any carpenter drooling, as well as a wide variety of other trees and flowers that proved far more interesting than I had anticipated.

There was also a wide variety of wildlife. Massive lizards (like big enough that they’d be good practice if you wanted to eventually wrestle crocs), tons of different bird species, the omnipresent monkeys (and their penchant for dropping fruit shells disturbingly close to passers-by) and flying tree squirrels.

My guide proved to be remarkably knowledgeable. He is studying agriculture in university and spends his free days at the gardens giving tours, which he has been doing for seven years. At one point I asked him about termites (since there were massive termite hills everywhere) and so he peeled away part of a hill to show me the workers, the soldiers and explain the various layers leading down to the queen.

Throughout the tour he had been explaining how each tree, plant and flower is used for traditional healing. Here, he explained the termines’ role (beyond being an apparently tasty treat… no thanks). If you’re out in the bush, he told me, and suffer a wound, experienced people know to head to the nearest termite hill and pluck the male termites off the hill. One-by-one, you pinch them and put them face-first on the wound. When they bite into your skin, you rip off the back end of their body. The teeth remain clenched for up to two days, he told me. So a series of termites can stitch up a wound.

Here is a picture of the guide demonstrating how it works:

Demonstrating how termites can stitch up a wound

We then checked out the view from a cliff overlooking Lake Victoria:

At Botanical Cardens overlooking Lake Victoria

And then began making our way back to the park gates, but not before first walking through the “jungle” forest where, apparently, the first Tarzan film was shot in the 1930s. From what I’ve read, that claim hasn’t been verified, but it’s plausible to imagine when you’re in the bush, with thick vines weaving off in all directions.

Here’s a shot from inside that part of the forest:

In forest at botanical gardens

I eventually left the gardens, and hopped a matatu back to Kampala. I was the first person on, and so got the prime front passenger seat, where I could enjoy the extra legroom and revel in the cool breeze as we sped back to town.

Tomorrow? We do the Source of the Nile River in Jinja, which is an hour or two east of Kampala.

I could get used to this whole tourist thing…

Oh, wait, how could I leave before including a picture of a baby monkey? Everybody loves a baby monkey:

Baby monkey

  1. Karen says:

    You have no idea how much that baby monkey just made my day. EVERYONE loves a baby monkey.

  2. stefanie says:

    I love that monkey!! And most surprisingly, you don’t seem at all surprised to see a baby monkey. Are there a lot of them running around and causing mischief?

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