Africa to Athens

My flight out of Africa left from the Entebbe airport, just outside of Kampala on the shore of Lake Victoria (and the equator!). Thankfully there is a direct bus with the same company that Meredith and I used to travel from Nairobi to Kampala, and as I sat in the office waiting the inevitable 45 minutes for the bus to arrive, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He was from Kenya and traveling all the way to Nairobi, but had gone to gradutate school at Berkeley! We had a fascinating conversation about the different mindsets and economic outlooks of Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, and were later entertained (and only a little frustrated) when his seat back broke and the bus attendant proceeded to fix it with duct tape.

Western Uganda countryside

On my final day in Kampala I visited the Baha’i House of Worship for Africa, one of the eight major Baha’i temples in the world (the others are located in Chicago, Panama City, New Delhi, Santiago, Samoa, Frankfurt, and Sydney, along with the Universal House of Justice located where the prophet Baha’u’llah was imprisoned and died in Akka). A relatively new faith, Baha’ism sprung up in the 1800’s in Iran. It’s key principles include universal peace and education, the oneness of humanity, and the single foundation of all religions. At the temple I met a young man from Iran who had studied petroluem engineering in the US and would be moving to Houston two weeks later; he was just finishing up a short period of volunteer service at the temple in Kampala. We talked about politics in Iran, Turkey and the US and I learned much about the basic organization and history of Baha’ism in Africa and worldwide. After our discussion I wandered the green grounds of the temple, a true haven of peace in the midst of Kampala’s general chaos.

Baha’i House of Worship, Kampala

One final meal with Mike and then I was off to the airport for a 4am flight to Cairo and then Athens. I had visited Greece a few times before while living in Turkey (some of the islands are just a stone’s throw away) but this was my first time in the capital. As a warm welcome someone tried to steal my wallet while on the metro to my hotel, but luckily I noticed the hand in my pocket, gave a shout and the guy dropped the wallet and pretended that nothing had happened. From there I went straight to the Acropolis to admire the famous Parthenon and the sweeping views over the city.

View from the Acropolis, Athens

Unbeknownst to me, the next day (March 25th) just so happened to be the national holiday celebrating the start of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821. As I wandered down toward Syntagma Square, I found my path blocked by a solid row of onlookers and the avenue being cleared by police on motorcycles. And before I could even think to ask what was happening, tanks started rolling down the street to the cheers of the flag-waving spectators. These were followed by armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft missile launchers and all sorts of other military hardware, while jets and helicopters flew by overhead. As I watched groups of face-painted soldiers marching and singing in tandem, I thought back to the US military’s denial of Trump’s request for a military parade just a few weeks prior. Different cultures, indeed.

Rolling through the streets of Athens

While in Athens I also partook in the quintessential Greek pastime of drinking coffee for hours at a sidewalk cafe. I always made sure to order ‘Greek coffee’, although even the hostel guy in Rhodes later admitted that it is actually Turkish (or Ottoman, really). My final time in Athens was spent touring the Panathinaiko Stadium (which hosted the first ‘modern’ Olympics in 1896 and is built entirely of marble) and walking the streets of the historic Plaka district. The next ferry to Rhodes didn’t leave for another day, which left me just enough time to make a pilgrimage to the oracle at Delphi…

Panathinaiko Stadium, Athens

Rwanda and the Lake

Weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi

To get to Lake Bunyonyi in the mountainous far southwest corner of Uganda via public transport, I could either take a night bus that arrived in the nearby city of Kabale at 4am (missing seeing the countryside along the way, as well as risking the danger of night busing in East Africa) or take a matatu (minibus) to Mbarara and then catch the next vehicle heading toward Kabale. I chose the latter (despite the additional safety concern of riding a matatu) and hopped on a little before 9am. After waiting for an hour for the car to fill with passengers (typical), the driver pulled around and told everyone to switch into the next matatu because of a mechanical issue. The attendants filled the new car’s tires with air and we were off, only to pull over at a gas station about 15 kilometers outside of Fort Portal with yet another mechanical issue. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and based on my previous experience with the bus to Fort Portal I decided to catch a ride back to town, bite the bullet and pay for a car and driver to take me directly to Bunyonyi.

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

It was a beautiful drive, passing through the lowlands of Queen Elizabeth National Park (unintended safari #2!) and making a brief stop to take a photo at the equator. A dirt road led us up from Kabale to the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, a large freshwater lake at about the same altitude as Lake Tahoe (6,300 feet, it felt like home!) and filled with almost 30 hilly islands of various sizes, many of them inhabited and terraced for farming. As the weather was looking questionable I took a motorboat out to Itambira Island hoping to find lodging in one of their open-air geodomes, but had to settle for a bunk in a dorm room by the water. I immediately jumped into the lake, its cool waters feeling incredibly refreshing after sweating my way through most of East Africa. At night I enjoyed a clear view of the stars and wished I had time to stay longer and just relax, after all of the adventures with getting to the place. I did have the chance to hike around the island the next morning before paddling back to the mainland in a dugout canoe.

Canoe: the only way to travel

From the shore I arranged a boda-boda to take me to the Rwandan border, about 25 kilometers away. Rwanda was not in my original plan but since I was able to obtain an East Africa Tourist Visa, I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity and spend a few days in the capital, Kigali. With its downtown built at the crest of one of the city’s many hills, Kigali resembled Kampala in some respects. However in others it differed wildly, one distinction being the requirement that boda drivers give their passengers helmets to use while riding (an offer I was more than happy to take advantage of). Traffic was a little less chaotic, and the city also seemed a little less lively. But people were friendly, and though I don’t speak French or the national language, Kinyarwanda, I felt welcome.

View of downtown Kigali, Rwanda, from the Genocide Memorial

I visited the “first house built in Uganda”, that of German explorer Richard Kandt, which now houses the small Museum of Natural History. Here I learned that the true source of the Nile River is in Rwanda (sorry Uganda) and other interesting facts about the country’s geology and biodiversity. Out back was a large shed that housed a collection of live snakes, including my favorite as a kid, the black mamba! (unfortunately photos were not allowed inside).

The first house in Kigali, circa late 1800’s

I spent my first full day visiting a couple of memorial sites from the 1994 genocide. With the city seemingly empty on a Sunday morning, I first visited the bullet hole-ridden building at Camp Kigali where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed in a (successful) attempt to have Belgium withdraw its contingent at the start of the massacres. The guide had survived the genocide as a teenager and showed me a bullet wound in his leg and machete scar on his stomach. This really reinforced the fact that this is not ancient history (I visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia while traveling around Asia in 2009, which happened over 35 years previously and long before I was born. Rwanda was only 23 years ago; I was 7 years old).

Building where the Belgian soldiers were killed in 1994

At the Genocide Memorial itself, I watched an introductory video containing powerful testimonies of survivors; powerful not so much in the listing of how many of their family members were killed, but in that the killers were friends and neighbors, people they had grown up with (one woman said, “It is difficult to trust anyone anymore.” Another survivor: “It changes you. You can never go back”). I had a visceral reaction when reading about the atrocities that happened in homes, in churches where people tried to take shelter, on the streets. A room lined with photos of victims (placed there by family members) was haunting, but even more haunting was a room full of skulls and femurs of some of the victims. Outside were a large number of concrete mass graves – I thought there were only two levels, but kept finding more of them (gave a sense of the depressing scale of the tragedy, 250,000 people buried at the memorial alone). Walking through the gardens and greenery provided a much needed respite and space to reflect on what happened, what is happening in the world now and perspective on my own life.

Entrance to the Genocide Memorial, Kigali

I found in interesting that, according to the museum, Hutu and Tutsi (during the genocide, members of the Hutu majority, especially the Interahamwe militia with the support of the interim government, targeted the Tutsi minority) were originally economic distinctions across all of the 18 tribes in Rwanda. It was only during the colonial period that these identities were made more concrete, being included on citizens’ identity cards and used to control the population by the colonial government. There is much more that I can say about this experience and my reflections, but I will leave it here for now. Rwanda has come a long way since that dark time and I would love to return one day to visit the countryside, the volcanoes, and meet more of the wonderful people.

Kigali cityscape, Rwanda

Rwenzori Rains

Rain falling in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

It has been over two months since I flew out of San Francisco and began this journey across three continents. It is also past the halfway point of my trip, and as I start my trek in Turkey I recall fondly (mostly, with the exception of a couple unfortunate bus/matatu rides) the weeks I spent traveling around East Africa. It was my first time anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and though I am now in a very different part of the world, I know one day I will return.

The largest banana tree I have ever seen, growing wild near Fort Portal

Since my arrival in Uganda I had been looking forward to seeing and doing some hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa and home to the continent’s third highest mountain (Mt. Stanley, at 5,109 meters). Without the time or funds to launch a full summit expedition, I opted for a three-day trek among the cultivated lower slopes, walking through a number of villages and culminating in an ascent of 3,000 meter Karangura Peak in the north of the park.



I set out on the first day with a guide and guide-in-training, walking on a dirt road directly out of the town of Fort Portal toward the countryside. We passed several schools along the way (basically just a single room with chairs and a chalkboard) as well as fields full of banana trees and cassava plants. Climbing to the top of a small hill, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the Rwenzori foothills and valley below dotted with crater lakes (a legacy of the region’s volcanic past). We also visited the famous Amabere Caves, one of the “Seven Wonders of Uganda” according to the guide, with its refreshing waterfall and stalactites that local Toro legend says are the breasts of an ancient princess (they drip a whitish liquid of hydro-calcium carbonate).

The famous stalactites of Amabere Cave

We stayed the night at an eco-camp consisting of local style bandas where I enjoyed some of the local food and drink (lots of peanut, or “groundnut/g-nut”, sauce and rolex, a fried egg rolled up inside a chapati, along with a variety of herbal teas). The next day my guides led us on a merry stroll around the terraced foothills of the mountains, stopping by villagers smashing river rocks into small stones to sell for use in road-building as well as the house of a local fortune teller. Reading how five short sticks fall into a bowl of water, he foretold my safe return to the US at the end of this trip. I also asked him if I would ever return to Uganda, and he read that I would indeed come back one more time (there is still so much to see in the country!). At the end of the day we entered a tiny village just as the rain started to fall (it was the very beginning of the rainy season) and took shelter in a teahouse, drinking milk tea with bread and watching the drops of water quench the dry earth.


Traversing the Rwenzori foothills

The major distributor of bottled water in Uganda is called Rwenzori, and I soon found out why as we began the peak attempt in a raging downpour the following morning. Despite a waterproof jacket and boots, I was completely soaked within 20 minutes and was about ready to call it off when we took a break at the ranger station. However we pressed on, two rangers with automatic rifles accompanying our struggle up the steep, muddy hillsides. The head ranger explained that as the park is located along the Congo border rebels from the DRC sometimes enter the park, though it was more of a problem six years ago. Luckily we didn’t meet any rebels but we did encounter a number of people who were in the park without a permit (either passing through or collecting plants), who the rangers proceeded to punish either by slapping them pretty hard in the face, forcing them to walk back up the mountain with us, or both.


It was extremely wet

After endeavoring up the steep path in the rain for hours, the skies finally cleared and we reached the peak of Karangura. Collapsing onto benches to ravenously devour our lunch of chapati, hard-boiled eggs, and (you guessed it) peanuts, I admired the gorgeous view of green mountains falling away into the mist in the distance. We slipped and slid our way down a different (but no less steep) path, spotting some of the giant lobelia plants that are endemic to the high mountains of East Africa. I celebrated our successful summit back in Fort Portal with pizza and beer, and promptly fell asleep exhausted and ready to relax at my next destination, Lake Bunyonyi.


View from Karangura summit

The Falls and the Forest


From Kampala I headed north to Uganda’s oldest and largest national park, Murchsion Falls. Traveling with a tour company recommended by my friend, it was about a five hour drive to get there. Just before the park gate we turned onto a dirt road where the driver, Sam, explained, “The tarmac road ends here. Now we are going to experience the dust.” And indeed we did. Faced with a choice between closing the windows to avoid the rolling clouds of orange dust or leaving them open to relieve some of the sweltering heat,  most of us attempted to do both by leaving just a small crack open, which made neither problem better.

Rolling down the dusty road, Murchison Falls National Park

The falls themselves are very impressive. Almost the entire flow of the Nile River is forced through a narrow, 6 meter wide opening in the rocks and plunges 45 meters into the valley below. An additional falls, named Uhuru (independence), was created in 1962 after extreme rainfall made the Nile flood, burst its banks and create a new channel. We were able to follow a rocky hiking trail right to the top of the falls; standing so close to the Devil’s Cauldron, a churning mass of water and mist, definitely makes one appreciate the force of nature. Across the rocks stood the remains of a bridge over the falls built for the Queen of England’s visit in the 50’s, which had been washed away by the power of the river.

Murchison Falls, Uganda

We stayed in a camp above the ferry dock on the south side of the Victoria Nile. Immediately upon arriving, our host explained that wild animals, including hippos, baboons, and a family of warthogs, often wandered through the camp and warned us to carry a light at night lest we bump into a wayward hippo and experience its ‘terminal’ bite. I shared a tent with a Serbian-German filmaker who was also visiting a friend in Kampala, another German who is working to develop the Uganda Film Institute. The night passed without incident (hippo or otherwise, although I did spot a warthog tearing up the grass outside the bathroom) and the next day we took a car out to the region between the Victoria and Albert Niles (the river as it flows out of Lake Victoria is called the Victoria Nile, which then enters and flows out of Lake Albert), which is full of buffalo and different species of antelope. The real highlight of the day, however, was a cruise in a small boat 17 kilometers up the river to about 400 meters from the base of the falls. Spotting crocodiles, fish eagles and innumerable hippos from on top of the roof, along with simply watching the lush green banks roll by as the afternoon waned, was pure bliss.

Full speed ahead on the Victoria Nile

After Murchison Falls I caught a bus to the town of Fort Portal at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. Most public buses in Uganda wait until they are fully packed with passengers to depart, and mine was no exception with a three hour wait at the station in Kampala. A woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf sat down next to me and though I was becoming impatient, she was completely exasperated and began berating the bus workers to start the journey. We eventually got going and made it to Fort Portal by midafternoon (I bought a couple roasted bananas for lunch along the way). During a communal dinner at my guesthouse that night I took part in an interesting discussion on Uganda’s unemployment problem, which my host argued would only be solved by young people moving back to their parents’ farms and becoming ‘professional farmers’.

Young crocodile, Murchison Falls National Park

Instead of gorilla tracking on the Congo border (which costs upwards of $600 for a permit, if you are lucky enough to obtain one) I decided to visit Kibale National Park, where tracking one of the 12 troops of chimpanzees is one of the more unique wildlife experiences in all of East Africa. Following an armed guide into the dense forest (the rifle slung over his shoulder was in case of any encounters with the aggressive forest elephants), my small group discovered some fruit branches that had been picked over by chimps and fresh chimp scat (complete with dung beetles) before spotting one in the bushes ahead. We lost him pretty quickly, but soon discovered an entire group of 15-20 chimps swinging through the trees, grooming one another, and rambling around on the forest floor. These chimps are habituated to the presence of humans and more or less ignored us the entire time, but that didn’t stop me from holding my breath as a large male walked by about 3 feet away. It was fascinating to observe the closest living relatives to humans in the wild, with all of our similarities and differences.

So like us

The River and the City

Kampala, Uganda

Kampala is a city of hills and motorbike taxis (known locally as boda-bodas). After crossing the Nile River on the bus in darkness, the only light emanating from some industrial smokestacks nearby, we arrived and hired a ‘special taxi’ to take us to my friend Michael’s house, of which I had the address and the name of a nearby road but not much else. Following a local boda driver (the acknowledged experts in city geography), we eventually found the right street and a woman at the streetcorner kiosk directed us to the right gate.

The bodas of Kampala (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

Mike runs a rent-to-own motorbike business for boda drivers called Tugende, meaning “Let’s go!” in the Luganda language (the most widely used local language in Uganda, spoken mainly by the Baganda people who constitute the largest ethnic group in Uganda, but are still only 17% of the total population). It was fascinating to get his perspectice on Ugandan business practices (corruption is rampant, unfortunately, though Tugende maintains a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and keeps it out of its business) as well as politics over a couple bottles of Club, a local beer. I also tried a bit of ‘Uganda Waragi’, a spirit similar to gin often sold in small plastic pouches (because they are cheaper to produce than glass bottles).

Discussing Uganda’s future with Mike

Two hours from Kampala, where the Nile flows north out of Lake Victoria and begins (according to Ugandans, though I was just told in Kigali that the true source is in Rwanda) its 4,000 mile-long journey north to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, a number of intense Class IV and V rapids support a fun rafting trip in which Meredith and I were eager to partake. The current raftable section of the Nile is a ways downriver from the original rapids, many of which were flooded with the completion of the Bujagali Dam in 2012 (the goverment is in the process of constructing yet another dam further downriver, which may make the current rapids disappear altogether).

Rapids on the Victoria Nile (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

We met our lead guide Juma (who competed in the London Olympics in 2012), grabbed a life jacket and helmet and jumped into the boat with five other travelers. After practicing flipping the raft in the refreshingly cool waters of the river, we approached the first rapid, known as Overtime. We hit it just as soon as our guide Paolo had time to explain that there is an 8-foot drop at the end, and that it was the most extreme rapid of the day. There was no time to think, about whether we had made a terrible mistake or anything else. Only to duck down and take cover as the raft plunged sideways over the drop off. Miraculously we did not flip, and an exhilirating (and wet) few seconds later we were in calm waters again, looking back at the waterfall we had just gone over as the screams of our fellow rafters subsided into giddy laughter.

Dropping in to Overtime

Seven more exciting rapids followed, including ‘The Dead Dutchman’ and ‘The Bad Place’, a Class VI that we had to take the rafts out and portage around to avoid. At one point the raft turned almost perpendicular to the water and Paolo was launched into the river, though the rest of us managed to cling on. Watching our fellows in Juma’s boat flip a number of times, I found myself wishing I would be similarly thrown into the brisk water at the next rapid. There were also long stretches of flatwater where we enjoyed pinapple slices and glucose biscuits (ubiquitous in East Africa), and I took every opportunity to dive in, swim around and cool off (no hippos or crocodiles here!).

Meredith and me on the river

The day ended with a BBQ, beers and a carnival trolley back to the main road. Sadly Meredith had to return home and flew back to the US the next day (a 36 hour journey) while I stayed in Kampala to see a bit more of the city, including the recently constructed National Mosque on Old Kampala Hill (fun fact: Kampala is also built on seven hills, like every other city in the world), known as the Gaddafi Mosque to Kampalans as it was built with funds and engineers provided by the late Libyan leader. The idea began with Idi Amin in the 1970’s, however, and it was interesting to talk with my guide about Uganda’s Muslim community while taking in the wide-ranging views of the city from the top of the minaret. I would soon strike out from here to Uganda’s hinterland, where waterfalls, chimpanzees, and Africa’s highest mountain range awaited.

National (Gaddafi) Mosque, Kampala