Translation courtesy of Cintia Verónica Ortiz
35 days in the first world
I was born, raised and lived until I was 28 years old in a country called “developing country”, a political and hypocrite concept recently created by economists of rich countries when referring basically to the third world. I am a third-world citizen from Argentina and have spent most of my life in South American and Asian developing countries, that is why every time I visit the so nobly called “first world” is when I most feel what is known as “culture shock”, the opposite effect of what many first world inhabitants experience when they are horrified after landing in an unknown poor country. After travelling in Africa for several months, the shock is even stronger, the first world where everything is in order, clean and civilized (at least on the surface) is the one I really find exotic.
We spent 35 days on holidays in the First world in order to visit Julia’s family and to extend my journey across the Atlantic Ocean to visit my sister, my brother in law and my lovely niece and nephew who live in Canada. It was a great time where I was finally able to meet Julia’s family, which is wonderful and has become part of mine. We were happily spoiled, got fatter, took daily showers and we enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle of the old Europe, though the Europeans as good first world inhabitants do nothing but complaining about everything despite of all they already have.
That is why it didn’t take me too long to miss the simplicity of life in Africa, where people have so few material things that they don’t have too much to really care about (though they usually lament themselves for not having money). Life goes by so slowly, smiles are very common even in bad times and can be easily found. They don’t have to go after the last electronic device since life involves simpler things.
On the contrary, European people usually play their worst face nowadays, are always complaining about economics and unemployment, but you have to queue up for hours in order to get the last I phone 6 at 900 euros a piece. I don’t mean to say that there are no problems but the word “problem” has another meaning for those of us who come from the third world, and even more after spending a considerable time in the African continent; the father of the third world where the most valuable lesson I learn every day is that it’s better to be grateful for what we have rather than complaining for what we don’t.
I am leaving the European and Canadian worlds once again; I have enjoyed their wonderful historic legacy and material comforts and recharged my batteries spending time with the family, though the first word rarely provides me of any valuable teaching for my life. Nonertheless, it clearly shows me the way the mankind should not follow; a life based mainly on accumulating stuff, permanent dissatisfaction and selfishness. I am leaving eager to return to our adventure; to take up the simple life again when I ride my bike at a slow pace, camp and meet simple and carefree people on a daily basis, that everyday open their heart with a big and white smile whenever we come across them.
Going deep into Uganda
The first days before our break after riding to Kampala from the Kenyan border, hadn’t been so exciting. A mix of exhaustion, the need for a break and the fact that due to my broken rear wheel we had to limit ourselves to the main road (with all the horrible traffic that comes with it) prevented us from appreciating that part of the country. As a result, we returned without so many expectations because the impression we’ve got from that time wasn’t good at all. However, everything would change after a few days of leaving Kampala.
The first few days back to cycling after a long break are strenuous, the body needs to get back on track and it may be a bit hard at first. Nevertheless, we left Kampala full of energy and ready to go deep into Uganda. It took us just four days along a hilly road of smooth gradients to get to the magnificent tea plantations in the surroundings of Fort Portal. The landscape of the tea plantations never ceases to amaze me wherever I am in the world. Rolling hills of woolen texture and lots of tea leaves pickers with their baskets on their backs walking along the paths and pulling up the leaves that will later turn into a the most relaxing cup of tea.
Once past Fort Portal we finally cycled away from the paved roads and headed off for the red soil paths that lead to the enigmatic region of the crater lakes. We are only a few days away from crossing the Equator and the dark grey colour of the storm clouds, full of rain, emphasizes the intense green colour of the tropics, while our bodies are being covered by the tropical humidity. We walked along several paths and passed through simple villages surrounded by mountains full of banana trees, and out of the blue the rain-forest clearings revealed these magnificent hidden lakes that mirror the sky. Thousands of years ago they originated from inactive volcanoes, there are tens or maybe hundreds of them scattered all around the region. It is a bit difficult to reach some of them, but we made an effort and ran off our route every time we could to enjoy these views in the complete silence of the forest.
People in the villages happily wave at us. Their life consists of cultivating the land from sunrise to sunset and women are those who usually do the hard work while men talk underneath the trees in the shade or spend every penny they earn drinking in some bar of the town. That image has a deep effect on me and it's an image that will repeat again and again throughout the rest of Africa.
Two children in the Savannah
After the crater lakes we changed our route again and headed west instead of taking the main paved road, in order to go deep into the Queen Elizabeth National Park, where mountains stay behind and the landscape turns into the vast plains of the savannah, covered with high green grass swaying in the soft wind, and decorated with acacias that serve wild animals as shade when they need to take a rest on a sunny day. There is absolute silence except for the sound of our tires crackling on a gravel road that is completely empty and where you may eventually come across animals at any time. Elephants, lions, leopards, buffalos, monkeys, wild boars, lots of different kinds of gazelles that we know they are wandering around and if we happened to meet some of them for the first time that could be a point of no return in life.
I have never liked zoos. Since I was a child I could notice the sadness of the animals locked up behind the iron bars, and from my childhood's innocence I already found it difficult to understand why they were there. That is why, as an adult, I am still against the existence of zoos. I waited, and waited for years until I finally got to the savannah. I didn’t want to go on a safari because for me, they make no sense, and on top of that, they are forbiddingly expensive and not affordable for me. That is why I reached the Savannah using my favourite means; my bicycle. During several days in Uganda, and for the next months I went on travelling throughout the rest of Africa, I planned my own safari on a bicycle selecting the roads that run along the home of all those animals I have learned of in tales and documentaries.
Your life changes when you come across a wild animal for the first time, you go back to your childhood in the blink of an eye. One thing is watching an animal from a truck safe and guarded by armed guides, as it happens in a safari, and another thing is being face to face with them on a bicycle. In a long and narrow road, we run into the first elephant, it is so big that it can completely block the sun setting. Both sides of the road are empty until groups of gazelles, impalas and sables pass by jumping around the grass until they stay put when they notice us. More elephants appeared later, eating quietly under the golden sun of the sunset. I look around and I find it hard to believe it, I feel like a 36-year old boy, which I am, I am astonished by those giants of the savannah moving in their natural habitat, so close to us. I get goose bumps when I see them but for some reason I am not afraid at all and we stop in order to watch them with childish curiosity.
We spent the whole day we cycling across the Savannah until we arrived, in the darkness and under the rain, at a village without name next to Lake Edward where there were about 300 inhabitants most of whom were fishermen. There is no electricity, running water or infrastructure of any kind. We are welcomed by the catechist of the village holding a flashlight and then he proceeds to takes us to a little mud house where we are invited to spend the night. We talk with him under the stars and then we decide to walk towards the bushes to go to pee. Suddenly, a person grabs me by the shoulder and says to me:
- Wait! Where do you think you are going? – a villager says to me
- I want to pee, I am going there since there is nobody – I say to him holding in the pee
- But can you see what it is in front of you? – He alerts me
-I turn the flash light on; I pointed it towards the bush and find a whole family of hippos grazing just few meters away from me.
- If you stand on their way you will be their dinner – he says to me laughing
Those mastodons standing right there, in front of me, in front of my eyes fascinate me so strongly that I find it hard to pay attention to the man who is talking to me. Julia and I watch them and look at each other in complete awe. Hippos, in front of us, just a few steps away. They are huge, beautifully ugly, and are grazing in silence. During the night, they come out of the lake and cross the village to eat and then return to spend the whole day inside the water.
We slept in the most absolute silence and darkness. The nights in Africa confirm the nickname given to the continent, the black continent. Everything turns to black when the sun goes down in Africa, you walk among the shadows, listening to the whispers of people who are still wandering around at the door of houses that are invisible to us. The flashlights of worn-out batteries look like fireflies in the darkness. A bonfire glinting inside a house indicates that there is place to eat, and when everybody is sleeping the spatial silence is broken by the sound of the hippos walking on the grass, and they will continue eating all night long. The first rays of light mark the return to the hard-working African life, early in the morning, at 5 am, when the sun rises on the horizon and its rays pierce through the cracks of the wooden and mud houses. The roaring of the hippos is an alarm clock that does not bother and reminds me that I'm not in normal 9 to 5 routing life, I'm inside a tale, together with Julia and our bicycles.
We are invited by our dear catechist friend Richard to take a walk along the lake shore. The magnificent Lake Edward, deeply blue, where fishermen push their rafts with a row and on the other side the mountains of the D.R.Congo trace the skyline. I see huge rocks but then I realize they are not what they seem to be since they start moving. Those are the hippos, dozens of them. They float, keeping their little eyes and ears above the water, from time to time they dive into the lake to cool down and then come up again to the surface. Fishermen make their way through them and nobody becomes upset. This is the first time I feel I am really in Africa. Deep Africa, I let my mind impregnate itself with this first African moment that until now had always been in my imagination alone. It is a moment of inspiration, of poetry.
We had breakfast with Richard and early at 07:00 am we started a new day leaving the village, surrounded by warthogs and people who say good-bye to us with a surprised face. The Savannah stayed behind and from there we went into the jungle, deep, full of vegetation and magically quiet. The humidity makes us soaked in sweat, we are alone and go through a long gravel road among trees entangled by long vines. The sun heats our backs and a fearful storm ahead of us paint the sky black. Rain falls on the horizon and the winds bring a refreshing breeze filled with the sweet smell of wet soil to our noses. These are unforgettable moments.
We still haven’t come across any human being or vehicle in our way, though we know we are not alone and perhaps, we, ourselves are actually bothering our hosts here. They are not used to visitors, they are shy and when they see us coming they cross the road running to the other side.
After spending three days in the African zoo I have reconnected with the innocence of a child, a beautiful regression to childhood in which to happily free ourselves from adult thinking and carelessly have fun on a bicycle like children. Those are the moments I live and travel for and I never want to stop doing it. Three days that cost us not even a single dollar, unlike a safari that costs 200 dollars a day per person. We didn’t sleep in the tents of any of those fancy 5 stars lodges of the Savannah, but we did it in the heart of Africa with African people. We breathed its land, absorbed its customs and we made ours a place that very few people arrived to on their own.
The park stays behind but now nobody could steal my childhood, although in the days to come we will have to face, like adults again, the brutal slopes that are already outlining the horizon in our way to the border with Rwanda.