Thursday, November 20, 2014

Africa Trip Recap

It took me months, but my dream trip to Africa is documented. 
Here's the links:

Part 1: Introduction

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Murchison Falls National Park

I've traveled quite a bit and as a result I have had a lot of crazy and somewhat scary experiences. Like the time i got robbed on a subway in Shanghai, China, or that time we straight up ran into (and killed) a dog on the dirt highways of Cambodia. But I think this next part of our trip takes the cake for the most scared I've been in all my travels. Okay, so maybe scared isn't the best adjective to describe how I felt. Helpless. That's better. I've never felt more helpless.

We got lucky. Super lucky. That's all I can say.

Once we arrived back in Kampala, and were finally reunited with our driver Nick (luckily, no thanks to the mini bus drivers) we had planned to just stop at a nearby ATM, grab a quick bite to eat and hit the road for our 3 hour drive north to Murchison Falls National Park (stopping in Masindi to spend the night). Well, while we were trying to do the conversion in our head from UGX (Ugandan Shillings) to USD, the ATM ATE OUR DEBIT CARDS. Yes BOTH mine and Margo's at the exact same time. (And yes we did hit the "would you like more time button?")
Did I happen to mention that it was about 9pm on a Thursday night? And we were supposed to do our safari on Friday? And then fly home on Saturday? And Uganda doesn't accept Discover (my "just in case" card I brought). And Margo's just in case card was a Visa that didn't have a pin associated with it for a cashback option. Oh, to say that we were pissed would be an understatement. 

So here we are in the middle of Uganda. With a few shillings to our name and no access to any more money. We were basically stranded and about to have to miss our safari--which I was not about to let happen. 

I have never experienced such a feeling. Being completely money-less in a foreign world--where we didn't know a soul. Where were we going to stay? How were we going to eat? How were we going to get to our safari? How were we going to pay for our safari? How? How? How? Our minds were spinning at the reality of what had just happened.

Insert: Nick. 

Nick is the kindest, most positive, helpful human being on the planet. We owe so much to this sweet gentleman. He kept our spirits high, helped us brainstorm options, and put so much trust in us little American girls. I cannot express how grateful I am for him. He was a blessing in disguise. To make a long story short--he decided to move forward with our planned trip to Murchison and trust that he would eventually get paid. Even though it was seeming highly unlikely at this point. He drove late into the night and we found the cheapest place we could in Murchison to spend the night. (He even offered to sleep in the car. Luckily we barely had enough money.) He allowed us to use his phone to make calls back to my mom in the US to look into wiring us money--which takes a few hours and the times of being open are off but we figured out a way to make it work. But finally at the second bank we went to early Fri morning (waited until the banks open, sacrificing safari time which we were still a few hours away from) they were able to run Margo's card as a credit card and give cash back. It was a miracle! We had cash! A limited amount, but enough to get by. ALLELUIA. Crisis averted. 

Side story:
When we arrived at our hostel in Masindi--in the middle of the night, I might add--Nick was excited to tell us that it was A. in our price range, and B. they had showers. I was a little unsure of why he was excited about a shower because we'd been in Africa for about a week and never had an issue with showers....but he was assured there were showers and that was comforting. Until we got into our room and with hands and feet black as dirt (we'd been volunteering and horseback riding and mini bus cruising all day)--I called first dibs on the shower. I hopped right into the shower that shared a floor with the toilet and wait for it...nothing. I then turn to the sink--that was also right there basically in the shower and also nothing. Umm? Hello? How are we supposed to shower here? So I get out, get dressed and go find the man who showed us our room and tell him there's no water coming out of the shower. He looks at me confused and then says "Your diddy has no water?" "Diddy?" WHAT THE HELL IS A DIDDY? Oh, don't worry. It's just the bucket of water that I conveniently didn't notice in the corner of he shower that I was apparently supposed to bathe with. No running water in this town ladies and gentleman. And the bucket was cold and too heavy to lift and scrub and rinse all by yourself. So Margo and I's friendship reached a whole new level that night in Africa. Yes, we helped each other bathe with a bucket. And I admit--that cold water actually felt pretty nice after the first few dumps. 

AND THEN we proceeded to find a grasshopper the size of my fist AT LEAST in our room and decided that we couldn't rest peacefully with him staring at us with his ginormous bloodthirsty eyes (we were convinced that he was an evil grasshopper) even with our princess nets. After a solid 15 min operation we got the mister outside the door and we were finally able to catch some zzzzzz's--for the couple hours that were left at this point. 

Finally we made it to the park. It was about a 2 hour drive through the park from Masindi to get to the river that we needed to cross and into the Big Game area (the area where the cool animals are). We saw several BABBOONS, BIRDS, and WARTHOG type animals on our way to the river crossing--which we were quite excited about since they were our first sightings in the park. The excitement quickly subsided when we realized the park was covered with such animals. 


Once we crossed over, and got our Game Guide with us, we were on our way to search for Simba. We may or may not have started singing an assortment of Lion King songs on our way. I couldn't help myself. I was so excited!

Anyone who goes on an African Safari is most definitely in search of what is commonly referred to as THE BIG FIVE:
1. The African Lion
2. Leopard
3. Rhino
4. Elephant
5. Cape Buffalo
The Big Five were coined by hunters who determined they were the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. But has later become a marketing ploy to get people to certain parks. Other animals that are just as exciting to spot on a safari are giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, and gorillas.  Here's how we made out on our safari...

We were definitely spoiled in the GIRAFFE department, for sure. We saw so so so many. Definitely over 30. And often times we'd see more than 10 at a time. It was amazing. Giraffes are my freaking favorite! They are so cool and pretty and intriguing. And they can run surprisingly fast! I was mesmerized! The Pumbaa and Timon's out there were also definitely cute as can be and I got a little but more excited than I should have over them. Especially when there was a bird, that I'm sure was named Zazu sitting on Pumbaa's back (Picture perfect, see proof below). Lion King is my favorite, okay? We also saw tons of different species of DEER. When I say tons, I mean tons. Like, we started to lose interest in them. Except our guide told us about ORIBI--which he said mate for life. I think that's pretty rad. If only humans had a similar devotion to their mate--things would be a lot less complicated I imagine. We also saw our very first Big Five animal...The CAPE BUFFALO! We ended up seeing tons of them. I guess they are pretty dangerous, but they sure looked pretty harmless chillin' there in their mudbath. 

Next we made a reservation for a river tour in a little banana boat to see the creatures of the Nile! This was so cool. Definitely a must do. This part of the Nile is filled with HIPPOS. Hippos are responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, making them Africa's most dangerous animal. (Mosquitoes actually kill more, but they are small) They were so cool. We must have seen hundreds on our tour, and boy are they aggressive. There were even warnings all over our hostel about not going out at night because hippos are known to come into the camp. They are very territorial and aggressive--so they kill to kill. Not to eat (they are vegetarians). In fact our guide got out of the car and got chased down by a hippo right before our very eyes.
Haha. Jk. I just saw this picture the other day online--- But our safari guide did tell us that he had been attacked by a hippo a few years back but he ended up playing dead and the hippo eventually left him alone.  And a girl sitting behind us on the boat said she saw a hippo attack a man in a small fisher boat--and they never saw him again--while she was in a more southern part of Africa. Our boat driver assured us that our boat was large enough to not be concerned. I was still a tiny bit concerned. They are definitely dangerous! As we passed by they would grunt at us and their nostrils would flare and then they would dive into the water. I was sure one was going to come up out of the water and ram our boat. Good thing they didn't. (Sidenote: When I got home my two best friends told me that they danced with a girl who went on a safari in Africa and was in a boat (smaller than ours) and a crocodile came out of the water and grabbed her. I haven't been able to find the news article on it, but they both separately told me the story and assured me it was true. CRAZY) Regardless of all of the above: I loved seeing the hippos. They are really interesting creatures and seeing them was always exciting. Especially when we got back to the ferry and one was right there on the land near our hostel. (When I read the sign in the hostel that night, my mind flashed back to that freaking hippo that was right there, and I kept my lurking around camp in the dark to a minimum that night. haha.) 


We also saw a few CROCODILES on our river cruise. The crocodiles were freaking rad! Seeing animals in their natural habitat out in the wild was so cool and yet more scary than the security a zoo gives you. Anything goes out here my friends, anything goes. Attacks happen. And Deaths occur. But I was never scared or nervous. I felt in awe of the beauty that surrounded me and lucky to see these amazing creatures in their home. We saw significantly less crocodiles than hippos. I think it was 2 or three. One was on land and I never in a million years wouldn't have spotted him if oiur boat driver hadn't pointed him out. He was huge and blended right in with the grass. As we got closer to get a better look, he got startled and took off into the water in a blink of an eye. Seriously, it was ginormous and fast as could be. I never realized how fast those suckers are. Rumor has it...if you are being chased by a crocodile, run in a zig zag becasue they cant's turn fast. haha. 
After the water cruise we headed back on land to continue the search for Simba. We drove around for a few more hours, singing and dancing along with our new friends. A highlight was definitely belting out this song:
"You are my African Queen, the Girl of my Dreams."
 It was a dream, really. Did I mention this was all happening at sunset? If I could go back to that moment...chasing giraffes, singing, dancing. It was surreal. Sidenote: Nick had the best cd's. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his African pop music and early 2000's R & B hits from the states. We had quite a few sing-a-long moments. So good. So good. 
video
video

While cruising in our van under the sunset, while trying to capture the beauty I was seeing on camera.  I noticed another safari vehicle-A land rover driving alongside. A white couple with two young kids. The mom and 2 kids sat on top basking in the last few minutes of sunlight, while the man drove. Although we hardly saw other vehicles, that's not what caught my attention. I took particular notice to them because of the young kids. I thought about how much fun it would be to have Matix there with me. He would have loved this so much. Animals are his one true love and I wished so badly that I could have him there with me. Maybe someday.I could come back and bring him, I thought. 

We made it back just in time for the last ferry of the day and happened to be on with this same little family. The little boy was standing with his mom on the boat, yet the girl was not with them I noticed. Standing next to her on the ride back, I asked where her daughter was. She responded that she was asleep in the car. I realized later that I probably seemed creepy since I had just met them. But I didn't care. We exchanged a few words back and forth about our day and whether we had seen any lions but that was that. I continued to observe the young boy some more. So adventurous, yet he seemed so at home. His expression wasn't one of newness and excitement. They weren't tourists--they'd been here before. I could sense it. It was after we got in the car that Nick brought the family up. She was the owner of Red Chili--the hostel chain we'd be staying at that night and her previous husband had been ambushed and killed by Kony and his rebels years ago. Kony. THE KONY. The face of the Cover the Night Campaign. Kony 2012. Now everybody knows about Joseph Kony. Everyone has watched the 30-min documentary. And here I was conversing with a woman who's husband was killed by Kony and his army. And these two precious little children who lost their dad. The little girl having never even met him. It brought that issue to life. It made it real. I had even forgot that this had all happened in Uganda. Right where I was standing. I remember being so intrigued and crying through the documentary years ago when I watched it---but then there was so much criticism and reports of lies surrounding the truth of the video. But it was real. And it was awful. And we had a long conversation with Nick about Kony and what had really gone on during that time here. I will never forget it. 

Read the Article HERE
On the 3rd page it references the family. Steve Willis was their father and the wife was pregnant with the daughter at the time of the ambush. 

And if you were living under a rock in 2012...
Watch the Kony video HERE.
So there you have it. Our African safari. We only saw 2 of the Big Five, but I was still stoked about all the beauty we saw that day. 

We knew that we would not see Rhino's for they keep them in a separate conservation park called the Ziwa Ranch outside of Murchison. Rhinoceros' had been eliminated in the 1980's due to poaching--where people would cut the horns (which are only made of keratin) off of the rhino to sell on the black market due and are very profitable due to their medicinal uses. Ziwa aims to create a safe environment for the animals to be conserved for future generations, and continue to mate them. They also have education programs for surrounding villages about the harmful effects of poaching to help accomplish the dream of one day successfully reintroducing Rhinos into the wild in Murchison. 
We didnt make it to Ziwa--and our bank issues were partly to blame for that. :(

We also never saw a lion or any cat for that matter. I was a little bit bummed about that. NO LIONS IN AFRICA. C'MON. But...it is what it is and the experience was still completely remarkable. I'm so blessed. 
Bucket List CHECK. 

At dusk we got to our hostel that was located in the park, Red Chili. Margo and I forgew our individual rooms (is that even a word? -- Bachelor talk..."Should you choose to forgo your individual rooms...anyways)  and stayed in a room together. We were scared of hippos and mosquitos and spiders. And basically just hated being alone for the most part. haha. 
I wish I got a picture of the Red Chili Camp. But we got to it after dark. And we left before the sun was even up. There were tons of little houses with a big restaurant area in the middle where we ate dinner. It was really pretty cool.  But the memory will have to live in my mind. Except I was sure to snag a picture of the Hippo warning. Good thing I laugh in the face of danger, kinda. ha. ha. ha. 
 I'm grateful we got to watch both the sun set and rise over the park. Breathtaking. This world really is so remarkable. Our drive back to Kampala was beautiful but a little bit somber. Today was the day we left this amazing place, with a few stops on the way. I tried to take it all in and get some last minute pictures so I would never forget anything about this place. We grabbed some maize from some street sellers that we got quite used to saying no to. But that maize, oh boy. I said no at first but it was hot off the grill and I was hungry. I cant remember the exact pricing but if I recall they wanted something along the lines of 10 cents for it and we ended up giving them $2 for 2. They were so concerned about getting us change and when we declined it because we were literally driving, their eyes got wide and you could see the gratitude in their face. Moments like this were my favorite. When a small gesture was so unexpected and much appreciated. 
We also got pulled over by a police--twice. haha. Nick was a gangster driver. We had places to go and things to do--and he wanted to make sure we did everything we wanted. He talked his way out of both tickets, in Ugandanese. It was entertaining to watch. I kinda wish I got it on video. He was good. Almost too good. But tickets there would set someone back so much and he was not going to let that happen. 
As we got closer to the city traffic got bad, like it always was in Kampala. But again Nick found some alternative routes and wasn't going to let us waste our precious time. We got to Stanbic Bank--the dreadful place that had our debit cards. Called while on the way to make sure they were there and that we could retrieve them...and what do you know? We get there and the "only person" with a key to the safe that held our cards--aka our only access to money for the remainder of our trip, which I had an overnight stop in Dubai, and another in LA--was at a meeting and wouldn't be back for a few hours. So we ended up getting in a pretty major fight with the security guard guy--Nick and him really got into it. Then Margo jumped in and man--was it heated. And after about an half hour of fighting and calling people and them telling us we had to wait til Monday to get them (which our flight left in a couple hours...) that SAME security guard walked to the back and brought out our damn cards. Excuse my language--but I could have killed the man. But I help my tongue. Grabbed my card and never looked back. I was so livid, but so grateful to have it back. 
Our final stop was at a little market to buy our last minute souvenirs! We stayed their longer than our allotted time--buying everything we could jam into our bags for friends and family and ourselves and then raced to the airport. Getting stopped in traffic, once again. Gotta love those dirt roads in a congested city. But Nick "the hero" saved the day once again with his amazing driving skills and love for us. We really came to be such good little friends. I honestly love this man so much. I hope that him and his little family are doing well. He has a couple kids--a newborn included. Even with such a young family, he spent 3 days with us and totally made our Africa trip all that it was. Ahhh, I just adore him. In fact I love all Africans. I have a client at work from Kenya and we hig and get so excited to see each other. There's something about these Africans that I just adore oh so much. Some of the most grateful, respectful happy people I have ever met. 
After a quick goodbye (we were in a hurry) and a 6 hour flight, we were back where we started our adventure--Dubai. We had great plans of partying the night away--but the reality was that all we wanted was a good bed to crash on before our early flight the next morning. It was some holiday and most things were closed and I honestly can't even remember if we ate dinner or anything about that night--besides getting to our hotel, showering, and passing out. We were exhausted, Oh and wi-fi. We had to catch up on some picture posting since we had been without for a few days now :)
Gucci, in an airport? C'mon. 

The flight was long, but again I didn't mind it. I remember hating my flight to China so much. But these fliights for some reason weren't bad. It must have been the amazing-ness of  Emirates :). I watched more movies and took little trips to visit Margo who was closer to the back of the ginormous plane, and 17 hours later we were back in LA, and a couple more and I was home! 

I was so excited to see my baby boy and he was just excited to see me. He loved his gifts, as expected. But his favorite was his chess set. I get him one everywhere I go, and it's always his favorite souvenir and favorite game. I love this little tradition we've started.  

Africa was a dream. I would have loved to have stayed longer and seen more, but I was also very happy with the little taste that I got. It was perfect. We did so many things in those short ten days. It was incredible. I'm so lucky that I get to go on these incredible journeys around the world. Traveling fuels my soul and fills my bucket. I love it so much. I hope that one day I can go back there, but if I never do, it will always have a piece of my heart and the people and their laughter will always make me smile. Africa---I love you.