Thursday, December 29, 2011

Our 'cool gear' Top 20 list

Preparing for life in the 'bush' back in 2007, we amassed a lot of gear like a good set of tools, hiking sandals, tent and sleeping bags, water filters, rain-gear, sun-gear, rechargeable batteries and charger, first-aid kit, maps, mini-mag flashlights, etc. But over the last four years, we've grown to love another set of handy 'gear', and we wanted to share that with you, just for fun:

1) Ratchet-straps: we're always carrying something on the roof-rack of our truck. With these ratchet-straps, I never have to tie or untie a knot. Just attach the two hooks and ratchet it down tight. That load ain't goin' nowheres!

2) Bungee-cords: a new addition to our vehicle kit. These cords of different lengths (and colors!) stretch and twist into all contortions to latch things down tightly.

3) Heavy-duty tow-strap: if you follow this blog, you will know why I need to specify 'heavy-duty'; otherwise, the tow-strap is rendered useless. Picture this: trying to pull a lawn-mower with floss. It just doesn't work. Basic physics. Thanks to my father-in-law, I am now the proud owner of a massive tow-strap. So proud, I may not even take it out of the packaging.

4) Plastic 'totes': these boxes made by Sterilite and sold in Wal-marts and other department stores make the best luggage containers. They are mostly water and air-proof, lockable, and have handles and wheels. And they stack nicely. Moreover, they are about the perfect size for check-in baggage on airlines. They are so handy that sometimes we just throw our stuff into one instead of using a suitcase or bag!

5) Pressure cooker: who would have known that dry beans can be cooked in just 15 minutes in a pressure cooker as opposed to four hours on a standard stove? Not to mention how a pressure cooker can allow you to can (in glass jars) all kinds of foods for your pantry: green beans, carrots, tomatoes, ground beef and pork, bacon and ham, salsa, broccoli, etc.

6) The garlic twist: this handy little circular object from Lehman's Hardware (check online) crushes garlic or ginger into smithereens with a few quick turns of the wrist. Yummy!

7) French press: this one is not a surprise. As much as we love African tea, sometimes a little extra caffeine is needed to cut through the funk. And Uganda produces some great coffees.

8) Collapsible fruit-basket: living in a small hut like we do, we've got more room above us than around us. So this nice collapsible fruit-basket hangs from the bamboo roof as a series of metal baskets, smallest at the top, increasing in size as it descends. And since we always have some sort of produce, it's always full.

9) Wide-mouth Nalgenes: thank you to Kate Shugart for introducing this to us! We've used the standard small-mouth Nalgenes for years, but the wide-mouth ones are easier to clean inside and come with a splash guard (which really helps on our bumpy roads. Ask Amber!).

10) Head-lamps: friends from the NGO world turned us on to head-lamp flashlights. Why should spelunkers be the only people to work in the dark hands-free? Nowadays we don't go anywhere without our head-lamps. Get you some! After using them, 'normal' flashlights will seem like 'cave man' technology.

11) Air-horns: when we first came to Uganda, security was a real issue. In a society where getting a legal gun is extremely difficult and where having a gun at all could endanger your life, you can protect yourself by splitting the night's silence with a blast from a hand-held fog-horn. It's highly effective; trust me. We usually keep one by our bed, and our guards have used them countless times to deter nighttime robbers.

12) Travel pillows: anyone who has stayed at a Ugandan hotel should recognize the need for a pillow that isn't the size and texture of a gunny sack filled with sand. Our small travel pillows have often saved us from that terrible neck crick that comes from sleeping with your head at a right angle to your body.

13) Kindle: this electronic book might be old news in the States, but we got our first one just this year. Thank you, Doug & Lisa! For folks who are avid readers and travelers, this device is the perfect antidote to carting heavy books wherever you go.

14) External hard-drive: we've always had one, but we recently bumped up to 1 terabyte (which is probably wimpy by now). This little baby lets us carry around movies, TV shows, music, language recordings, podcasts, tons of photos, etc., in addition to backing up our computer drives.

15) Portable, battery-capable printer: this HP Deskjet 460 that we got from Amber's parents for Christmas 2007 has been a truly awesome part of our lives and work. It's small, portable (with a nice case smaller than a briefcase), and can run on battery power. The only other person I've ever seen with one was a Taco-Bell manager somewhere in the mid-west. You all are really missing out!

16) Ear-plugs: it sometimes seems that the universe is conspiring to keep us from sleeping. Dormice in the attic, dogs attacking each other, the wind playing with that one loose piece of tin roofing, the guards' radio too early in the morning, the emotionally needy pet dog howling at some ungodly hour, and always, the birds who kick in about 6 am. Sometimes you just need to shut it all out with two tiny foam inserts.

17) Self-setting mouse traps: these amazing inventions (from Lehman's) set with a simple squeezing of a lever. No more cringing as you wait for the trap to slam shut on your tender fingers and send the peanut-butter flying all over the place. Works well for dormice too, which is always a plus.

18) Flossers: goat meat (not to mention mango) in Africa is legendary for filling all the gaps in your teeth with gristle, but that's no reason to avoid it, right? Especially if you've got a handy-danday flosser in your pocket...and in your car...and behind your ear...and anywhere else you might need it.

19) Refrigerated cooler: Amber's aunt and uncle from Ohio introduced us to this amazing cooler that plugs into the cigarette lighter of your vehicle. Before, we used to buy meat in Kampala and try to make it home in one day or stay somewhere where they had refrigeration. But with this cooler, we can keep our meat and drinks frosty even as we drive!

20) Spyderco knife: besides just looking totally cool, this wicked folding knife with a partly serrated blade is always there in my right pocket for all my slicing and dicing needs, whether it's sawing through a rope, peeling a piece of cassava root, or cutting off the top of a plastic bottle of honey, my Spyderco is always there, like a loyal guard-dog.

So, that's it! Our 'cool gear' Top 20 list. I hope you enjoyed it and got some gift ideas for your loved ones who are living on the 'backside of beyond'.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The long road home...

My (Amber's) parents came to visit a few weeks ago. And as usual, my mom took loads of pictures (1160 in two weeks). What was interesting is that when we looked back over what my mom found fascinating, we discovered that they were pictures of our life in Uganda that have become 'the norm' to us. While spending time with others, we're reminded of how different this life might look through their eyes. In this particular blog, I wanted to take you along on our trip north from Kampala to Timu. The people change, different languages are spoken, and the pace of life slows as we travel north.

Below, we are starting our journey from our favorite guest house in Kampala. The vehicle is usually packed and Terrill can rarely see out the rearview mirror...although, he usually doesn't need to see through it after we exit Kampala.
The streets of Kampala. They are tight, a bit dirty and always busy.
Kampala boasts big stores like this one named Game. It's like a Walmart but more expensive with a lower quality of goods. This is where the rich and middle class will shop.
Kampala transportation includes motorcycles that carry goods and people for a small fee...
...minivans that they call 'taxis' that carry goods and people for a small fee (some of them also have funny advertisements, like this one, "I beat my wife, and my life changed for the worse.")...
...big trucks that they call 'lorries' which carry and are usually overloaded with goods and people...
and bicycles which can be hired for goods or people. Being able to hire a bicycle taxi is actually really helpful. Not only can you get other people to help you do errands, but they will have a job in this poor economy. Everyone is happy in the end.
Another common sight in the Kampala streets are food vendors. Dad & I had stopped to pick up a papaya and a pineapple. One thing I love about Uganda is being able to get fresh fruit along any road that we're traveling. There is always someone selling it. The man to the far left is also selling fried grasshoppers. They're actually not bad, tasting a bit like bacon.
These fruit vendors are selling green bananas called matooke. They are not a sweet banana but must be steamed in banana leaves to soften them and make them edible. I find the taste to be bland, but they are filling. For southern Ugandans, matooke is a staple food in their diet.
And now we are leaving Kampala. Someone is always walking alongside the road and carrying something on their head. I was quite impressed to see this man carrying goods as well. It's not a common sight as it's usually the work of women.
These children are relaxing in an animal trough.
And this is what a town looks like as we leave the populated southern area and enter Karamoja in the north-east.
People will move out of the way as you honk at them. Few vehicles travel this way, but you will see the occasional overloaded lorry.
The farther north you travel, the less developed it gets. But I personally think it also gets more beautiful. Red dirt roads, brilliant blue skies, mountains rising in the distance.
The houses go from being square to circular. They are made of mud and sticks with a grass roof.
The Karamojong men start wearing skirts...I mean...wraps. They are really just pieces of a heavy cloth that are cut to fit around the waist. This man is rewrapping; luckily he's not facing the road. :)
And Karamoja is not Karamoja without cows grazing in the vast landscape. A shepherd boy is probably napping under a near-by tree. Ah, the landscape of Kaabong district. Jagged hills and Euphorbia (candelabra) trees. They don't cut these trees down because they can't use the wood.
After a 12-14 hour trip, we arrive in Timu. The road here is long with many twists and turns.

Monday, December 5, 2011

'Parking' isn't always fun

In major Ugandan cities, there is a parking authority that charges you per hour to park your vehicle along the streets. The charges vary from city to city, but the fee is usually pretty cheap. As is often the case when money has to change hands, there is no documentation available on how much it costs per hour. No signs, no pamphlets, no anything. So one has to largely trust the orange vest-wearing parking attendant to tell you how much you owe. Obviously this is a great opportunity for them to make a little 'extra' off your parking bill.

The last three times we've parked our car in Jinja, the city at the 'source of the Nile', we've had unpleasant run-ins with the parking authority. The first time the guy convinced us we had to buy five parking stubs, even though we only owed one. Not only did we buy the five stubs, we paid five times too much for them, as we'd find out later. The next time, just last week, the guy said each stub cost 1000 shillings and was good for half an hour. Amber's BS detector went off, and we told the guy we were going to the parking authority office to settle the issue once and for all. He protested briefly, but then realized we were determined not to be cheated. It might seem strange that he offered directions to the office until you understand that he gave us grossly wrong directions.

Not finding the office where he said it would be (surprise, surprise!), we stopped to ask some men where the office was. We parked, I got out, and Amber and Kate stayed in the car. In the sixty seconds I was outside the car, another parking attendant came up and wrote us a ticket. Amber asked him how much. He hesitated, thinking, and said '2000 shillings', ten times what we really owed. And since when do we need to pay for one minute of parking?

We drove to where the office was supposed to be but couldn't find it. We drove around the block twice and then asked a third person. He directed me around the corner, into an unmarked building, up a dingy set of stairs, down a hall, and into an unmarked room where a man sat behind a table piled with papers. 'Is this the parking office?', I asked. He said 'yes'. I told him their parking attendants were lying to people about the parking fee. Without interest or concern, he said 'you really have to watch those guys.' Great, thanks. At least he told me the real price: one stub costs 200 shillings and is good for 1 hour.

While I was in the dingy, unmarked office, we got a third parking ticket. What a circus. All we wanted to do was pay the real parking fee and get on our way. But it took us thirty minutes and three parking tickets, two bogus and one legit, just to leave Jinja without being deceived. While this is extremely frustrating, it's all just part of the deal. But today, as we got in our vehicle to leave Jinja once again, we had the pleasure of luring the parking attendant into a lie and busting him on it:

'How much do we owe?'
'Two thousand shillings.'
'You're lying. How much is it per hour?'
'Four hundred shillings.'
'You're lying.'
'You have to buy five stubs.'
'No I don't. I only want two.' I hand him four hundred shillings and two stubs. He walks away without another word.

Small but sufficient consolation for the embattled wazungu (white folks).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Towed from Timu

A few weeks ago we bought a whole batch of water-contaminated diesel. Of course we didn't know it at the time, but soon the engine started to lose power as we drove. Eventually, on our last trip up to Timu with Kate Shugart, we barely made it up the last hill, having to crawl in four-wheel low at 1000 rpms. I got some advice and tried to fix the problem as best I could, but it only got worse (says something about my skill as a mechanic...). By the end of the week, the truck wouldn't start at all.

This was the first time we had been officially stranded in Ikland. Really it wasn't all that bad. We felt safe. We still had food (though we were running out of the stuff we like to cook). And we had plenty of work to do in the mean time. We had peace in our hearts about the situation.

But, we still had to get to Kaabong to get to Kampala to get Kate to the airport. So I called a friend who has a small dump-truck or 'tipper' as they call them here. They agreed to come tow us down off the mountain, but it would have to be tomorrow because of all the rain. The next morning they left with a load of sand (to bring our way) at about 10 am., and it took them five hours to reach us, almost five times longer than it normally takes. They kept getting stuck in the mud on a dirt road that had just been graded but not compacted.

We spent the whole day waiting...and waiting...and waiting. 'Closing up shop' in Timu is quite an operation, and once we do it, it's extremely unnerving to do anything but leave as planned. We pack up things to protect them from dust, mice, bugs, etc. We do the dishes and dump the dishwater. We collect the trash and burn it. We pay employees. We take last-minute shopping requests. We host last-minute visitors. We pack this and put away that. We give last-minute instructions to our translator. It seriously takes half a day just to leave. And if our ride isn't available, then we're just sitting ducks for people to dream up what we could possibly bring them from 'Kampala', that distant and marvelous land where anything wonderful is available for a cheap price. We prayed the truck would come.

And come it did, about 4:3o pm. Dumping the sand and hooking the trucks together with a tow rope only took a few minutes. The tow strap I had looked awfully puny and hardly capable of connecting those two masses of metal. It was a bad omen, as I would soon discover.

Since our truck's engine couldn't be started, I had to operate the 'power' steering and power brakes with, power. I got a good workout from that. After going down the first long hill, things got interesting. We went through a deep puddle, and while going up the other side, the tow strap broke. No problem. Just retie. A few minutes later it broke again, with a loud and very rude 'pop!' My heart stopped every time it did that and nearly stopped every time the driver ahead sped up when there was slack in the line. After the second break, the driver pulled out what looked like a very inadequate white nylon rope, to join to the failing tow strap. I laughed out loud. Shame on me. He quadrupled that rope, added it to the tow strap, and the thing never broke from then on. Never laugh at rural African ingenuity (R.A.I.), especially if it's your proverbial derriere on the line.

Back to the main road that had been graded and turned to mud pudding. On the first hill, we got stuck. So we dug out from around the wheels, cleared a little path for them ahead, and got a few more yards before getting stuck. The hill was just too steep and too long. Someone came up with a crazy plan to go back down the hill, drive off the road, and come up on the side. I confess I had no faith at all that this plan would work, but it did, and quite well. Another good mark for rural African ingenuity.

We continued like this for hours. Getting stuck, digging out, getting stuck again. By then the tow strap was so short, I couldn't see the ground between us and the tow truck. I had to concentrate 120% to keep from running into the back of it and to keep the line taut so it wouldn't break again. It got dark, and we labored under the light of flashlights and my slowly dimming headlights. My resolve was extremely weak---I kept suggesting we find a place to park the vehicle and come get it the following morning. But the driver and the five guys helping him never once considered not finishing the job. They were like the tow angels of the night. Finally, close to midnight, we reached our destination.

We and our African friends have a lot to learn from each other. They have a lot to teach me about just going with the flow of life, not getting stressed about circumstances that are mostly if not entirely out of my control. As Westerners we can tend to try to control life, and that's why life here can be so stressful. Things just don't usually go as planned. On the flip-side, our African friends can learn a little from us about altering the flow of life. We're not just victims of cosmic forces; we can bend and use them to our advantage. We are not just creatures of God; we are co-creators of the earth by God's design. When we face life's challenges together---like towing a vehicle through the mud at night---our different but complimentary perspectives come to light.