Saturday, June 7, 2008

How did you end up in Uganda?

“How did you end up in Uganda?”

I hear that a lot, as small airplane pilot flying people around our little part of Africa. Visitors are often fascinated that some people just pack up and move here. It is a good story, but to answer the “how did you get here” question requires asking just one more question: “How did you become a pilot?” Because they were similar events and are inextricably linked. The answer to both accidental events is simple: “I just got lucky!”

The pilot part first, because that, in a circuitous manner, led me to Africa. I had always wanted to be a pilot. Like most small kids, I was fascinated by airplanes and said I’d be a pilot when I grew up. When I reached my teens I was already quite directionless, and my parents reminded me of that childhood dream: “If you want to be a pilot, quit listening to that loud rock and roll, quit drinking and smoking, cut that hair, and join the air force.” Damn, I thought, another door closed to me!

I somehow got through college, although I never did grow up. I then wandered quite aimlessly and restlessly through life for several years. I was still aimless when a random, lucky temporary job came up in Alaska that exposed me to aviation and left me with a small bit of money in the bank. In a fit of irresponsibility, I thought “hey man, I can get my pilot’s license now!”

So I did. I had no goals beyond just taking friends flying on local, scenic flights. I had no idea about the process of becoming a “real” pilot, I was just happy buzzing around in a small Cessna for fun. I did have several friends who were flight instructors, and they were my idols. They could fly many aircraft, seemed to know everything about airplanes, and would tell me about places they’d flown and things they had done. It made an impression on me.

One day my aimless life had come to a crossroads. I had no ideas, no plans, no clue. I got very lucky when I asked myself: “If I didn’t have to work, what would I do?” I was at the airport when I had these thoughts, which might have influenced my answer: “I could be a flight instructor! Even if I didn’t need money, I’d still enjoy flying small planes and hanging out at the airport.” So I went on to get the pilot certificates needed to work as an instructor, and have been very lucky that I’ve been flying and instructing for most of the time since then.

The Uganda part: I instructed for several years, and finally I was becoming an experienced, career instructor. I had become the instructor who I idolized. But, other things in my life made me think one day: “maybe I should see what else is out there.” So I got on the internet right then, and within a half hour I came across a job posting describing “flying small aircraft on charter into dirt and grass strips in Uganda, in sometimes challenging conditions. Sense of humor essential.” Wow, I thought, that sounds like my dream job! Uganda! Where the hell is that? I consulted the map, which verified my suspicion- Uganda is in Africa! I hastily threw together a resume and sent it off. To my surprise, I was offered the job, and three weeks later I was getting off a plane in Uganda. A year and a half later, I’m still here. Despite some dire predictions, I have not been eaten by wildlife, killed by rebels, or died due to tropical disease. Not yet, anyway!

So, “just got lucky” is the answer to two major events that have shaped my life in an indescribably huge way. I wish I could say that I had some plan, or that somehow it was my doing. Not at all. “Shit happens!” is a common way of summing up the randomness of life. It is often used in a negative sense like when your new car gets in a wreck. But I like to now apply it to the positive randomness in life as well. I also like it because it requires absolutely no planning on my part. As lazy as I am, that is a good thing.

Most people’s lives are probably shaped in the same manner. I just got lucky that mine ended me up in Uganda. Why is Uganda so good? That’s another story!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

grasshoppers aren't bugs!

We were walking through Kabalagalla, towards the Chinese restaurant. Ahh, even in Kampala you can get Chinese food! We were close when my girlfriend said “Hey, look, nsenene!” Pronounced “en-sen-en-ay”, it is Luganda for “fried grasshopper.” So we stopped and bought a small paper sack, about two large handfuls worth. We munched on our crunchy grasshoppers as we walked towards the restaurant.

I’ve eaten the nsenenay before. Someone once told me they taste similar to shrimp, but I’m sad to say that has not been my experience. I would say they taste like…oily, fried bugs. But almost anything tastes good fried, so I do eat them when they are available.

My date had never eaten Chinese food before. Like most Ugandans, she was a bit fearful of trying totally different food:

“I hear the Chinese eat snakes and frogs.” She said, as a grasshopper leg dangled lazily from the corner of her luscious lips. I looked at her with mild shock for just a moment, then responded with my western logic:

“We are eating fried bugs.”
“no, we’re eating nsenene!” she replied indignantly.
“come on, they’re bugs! They’re grasshoppers!”

She did not believe me. Our Chinese waitress walked past, and I asked her, “excuse me, but do you eat these bugs?”, pointing to our dwindling supply of nsenene.

“oh, no, I no eat those.” She replied in a thick accent.

I had hoped to make the point that different cultures do different things. That point seems obvious to me, with me being from the states and her being Ugandan. She didn’t care about any of that, she was just happy that the menu didn’t list frogs or snakes. She did enjoy the hot and sour soup, sweet and sour pork, and all the other delicacies that the Chinese manage to make here in Uganda.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Blogs for Captain Hans Svellengra...Sveleng...ahh, blogs for Hans the flying dutchman!

For Hans, the flying dutchman: Hey man, these are some blogs that i thought you might enjoy. I originally posted them long ago on a friend's blog site, so the character in my mind while writing these was my friend- a young hippie chick. I thought it would be funny to post them on her site so her friends would think she did it. Anyway, there's two here, enjoy! (ps yes, these are obviously fiction, i hope that's okay for a blog post...)


I was walking up the path when I felt a strange feeling, light on my feet like when an elevator starts down. What the toast? Then I felt it again, just a little bit more, just for a second. It was just enough to know it was for real, it wasn't my imagination. I knew what this strange sensation was, I had felt it before. In a panic, I dropped my basket of mangos and ran as fast as I could back down the path. I ran through the cannibal's village, beyond the caves where my monkey friends live, past the cage that I lock Amber in when I'm feeling mean, and finally slowed when I reached a collection of small mud huts. I kept jogging until I reached the far end of the huts, where the older, dilapidated huts were- crumbling down walls, caving in thatched roofs, neglected and abandoned. Well, not quite abandoned, at the far end there was one hut that was still inhabited. I jogged up to it, panting, legs, burning, breathing too hard to talk, but trying to anyway…

"Cooper!" I yelled, trying to catch my breath. "Cooper, it's happening again! Help!"

Cooper came out, smoking a cigarette, drinking a warm busch beer, and wearing his ever-present camouflage hat. "Christ, Nandi Bull, what the hell got into you? Find another spider in your hammock?" he asked, while holding out a beer for me.

"No, no, it's the gravity again!" I said, ignoring the beer. He shrugged, finished his own beer, and popped open the one that was to be mine. "They're stealing the fucking gravity again!"

He took long swig of beer, a drag on his cigarette, looked at me for a moment then looked away. "Stealing our gravity? Who?"

"Who?!? The fucking tujeema tribe! Who else?"

Cooper acted confused. "the tu-who? stealing gravity?"

This really pissed me off. He knew damn well who I was talking about! I took on a tone of extreme sarcasm and mock patience: "Yes, cooper, the tujeema tribe. You may recall they started stealing our gravity before. I wouldn't have known about it if I hadn't seen them in the forest one day. They had a home-made g-meter, and were all very excited about the readings. They panicked and ran when they saw me, and they dropped a bar- napkin map labeled "places to mine gravity in mzungu territory." I showed this to everyone, including YOU, and no one believed me and no one would help. So I single-handedly stopped them, when I made a deal myself with the tujeema, that I would teach their kids to play didgeridoo if they quit stealing our gravity." By now I was right in his face. "Do you remember any of this? Do you remember taking me to pick up the didgeridoos?" Now I had his back against the wall of the hut, and was between him and his beer.

"I remember! You're right, they are doing it!" He admitted. I backed off, giving him space and a moment to collect his thoughts. At this point he said,

"So what? We've got tons of gravity. They can have some of ours."

"No, you don't understand, they won't stop! They'll take it all and then we're stuffed! They started taking it once before, probably just to see if they could, now they're gonna take it all."

"I don't know. It's not so bad, since they took some before. It's nice with everything being just a tiny bit lighter. When I fly into that short strip to pick up ammo, I used to just barely clear the trees at the far end of the runway."

"wait, cooper, I was with you last time, we still almost hit those trees."

"of course, because now I pack a hell of a lot more in the ol' girl, bein's that there's a little less gravity. See, it's a good thing!"

"no, no it's not! Come on, what could they be doing with that gravity?"

"well, they're mostly using it for two things. One, they like to put a little in their coffee. They like their coffee a little heavier, a little thicker, just slightly more dense. A shot of gravity does that. It also stays hot longer."

"So they're stealing our gravity just to make better coffee?" I asked in amazement. It made sense, but it hardly seemed like a serious motive. This was a poor tribe, that should have more pressing matters than developing high-tech ways to make better coffee. "You said two reasons. What's the second?"

"oh yeah, they're also building a black hole."

"A BLACK HOLE?!? Are you fucking kidding me? Why the hell are they building a black hole?"

"why? Why the hell not? Why do they do any of the things that they do- for fun, for the hell of it, to see if they can do it, to see what happens. What better reasons do they need?"

"yes, I understand all those reasons, but come on, this is a black hole we're talking about! They can't be trusted with that kind of technology! Think about it- building a black hole just to see what happens? Holy shit. This is bad. This is very, very bad. They fuck around with things just for fun and don't ever consider the consequences. Remember when they built that hurricane generator, and there were all those floods? Or when they discovered anti-light and it was dark for two weeks? No, we can't let them finish this. Cooper, we have to stop them."

"We? Hey, slow down, why we? Why stop them? I don't care if their little black hole swallows everything up. I'm perfectly capable of enjoying life until then."

"okay, do it for me. Or better yet, do it because you know damn well I will make your life a miserable, living hell until you help me. I mean, even more miserable than it already is." I thought about what I had said and wondered if this was really possible. No, actually I was bluffing, there was nothing that I could do that would bother this man. Still, it was the only bluff I had.

Cooper considered this threat, and I believe he knew I was bluffing too. "allright, I'll help. Not 'cuz I'm afraid of you, but because I've got nothing else to do, and I enjoy your company."

So we went down to the river and jumped in the canoe. As we paddled along Cooper talked about the tujeema and their strange ways. I was so intrigued by his stories that I didn't even think to ask how he knew so much about them. But then he knew a lot about a lot of things, so I didn't question it. He also explained the mechanics of gravity and how they had developed technology to harness it, but this wasn't nearly as interesting as the tujeema.

For example: A bunch of televisions had been donated to them after some aid agency noticed that they had none. The tujeema used them for target practice with their coconut cannons. A newspaper article reported that they were amongst the poorest people in the land, so the tujeema printed a new currency, the 1 billion pound note. They gave one of these to everyone and promptly declared that all tujeemas were billionaires. Then they gave these notes to other countries as "foreign aid." Descriptions of their mating rituals were fascinating and made me quite excited, but I won't get into that here.

Soon we were deep into the tujeema territory. I was uneasy, but cooper seemed very relaxed and that was reassuring. We parked the canoe and walked up a footpath to a small village, and took a seat on the patio of a café. Cooper ordered us coffees. Damn, that was good coffee, and I commented on this to cooper.

Cooper gave me a huge smile. "yes, it is very good, isn't it? Rich, thick, full-bodied? Isn't that the best cup of coffee you've ever had?"

Holy shit! I was drinking the coffee with the extra gravity! I took another sip. Yes, this was by far the best coffee ever. It was orgasmic coffee. Still, I had to ask:

"so, uh, are there like any bad side effects to this?" Not that it mattered, nothing he could tell me would stop me from finishing my cup. I was just curious.

"how the hell should I know? Maybe your shit will be more dense." he answered, ordering another round. I shrugged and thought he had a good point. After we finished our second cup he led me around back to the room where they kept the gravity device. It was a very home-made looking device, with wires and coils and belts and electrical tape and cooling fins and hoses running everywhere. Fluids and gasses were leaking and dripping from several locations. There was a lot of duct tape. It was a noisy device that emitted a steady, vibrating hum and also frequent, random, louder mechanical/metallic rumblings. Looking at the machine gave no indication whatsoever as to what it was for, or even what each individual part might be. Except for the end, where someone was sitting on a stool using a rubber hose to fill cylinders labeled "gravity." There was a whole row of these cylinders at the back of the room.

Cooper led me back outside. Next to the café there was a small shack with the unlikely title painted on the wooden door: "Centre for Theoretical Physics Research." Cooper opened the door, pulling hard, and we went inside.

Inside was semi-dark. There were lights on, but the rays were being strangely bent towards the center of the shack. And there it was, hovering in the middle of the shack, a tiny, baby black hole, sucking in the rays of light. Some small boys were entertaining themselves by tossing rocks and sticks up in the air and watching them float towards the hole, speeding up in tightening orbits until they disappeared into the hole itself. At this point they would let out screams of laughter and delight and pick up another stone off the dirt floor and do it again. I felt my hair going forward, as though I was standing in a tailwind. The hole wasn't completely formed yet, I could still see bits of light coming back out here and there, and I could catch glimpses of things beyond the event horizon.

Cooper addressed this point. "it's obviously not done yet, it needs more gravity. Or more mass. But it would take these kids a very long time of throwing crap into it to make it a real black hole just by mass. So we'll keep putting more gravity into it, until the event horizon closes up, then it will be a for-real, self-sustaining, tiny little black hole."

That was enough for me to take my eyes off the black hole and look at cooper. "you just said 'we'".

"I mean, the tujeema people."

"bullshit. You're working with them. Your helping them build this!"

"no, no, I'm not helping." He said, clearly backpeddling. " I'm more like a consultant, an instructor. I just give them advice, talk about theories, help perform calculations…and…uh…" he trailed off, realizing that instead of talking his way out of it he was just incriminating himself further.

"so you fucking taught them how to build a black hole! And to steal gravity!"

"yeah, well I was afraid if they didn't have anything constructive to do they might get bored and cause some real problems."

"Great, a black hole built with stolen gravity is such good clean fun. So what will they do with it when they're done? How are they gonna feed it? Keep stealing gravity?"

"no, not at all. When they're done, it will have plenty of gravity. It will be self-sustaining. They they can tap it, use it to make more coffee. Of course, by that point the rest of the planet will be down to about a half G, so they might export some back out to us, to make a little money. They could also make a little money as a tourist attraction. It's a poor place, every little bit helps. Of course, there is one more use for the black hole project."

Now I was scared. Stealing our gravity to build a black hole just to sell the gravity back to us, and making great coffee, those weren't the only motives? I shuddered…what could be another use of this?

"It's the ultimate recycler. Shit goes in, doesn't come out, and we get to make great coffee. So far, we've thrown in three busloads of government employees. Two busloads were from the Ministry of Oppression, one was a team of investigators from the Book Banning Authority. Next week we have a group from the Paperwork Enforcement Agency that we're going to throw in."

I thought about this for a minute. Surely there were side effects that hadn't been considered, or, more likely knowing the tujeema, had been ignored. The side effects must be on a very large scale. But weighing the incomprehensible unknowns that would result from fucking with the physics of the universe against the utility, the satisfaction, the joy of the government recycling black hole…and oh my god, that coffee…yes, count me in.

So that's the story of how I joined the tujeema and became a guerilla soldier in the great gravity war. And you thought I was in Korea!


So today i went for a walk. Some dude came up and asked me if i'd watch his dog for just a minute, he had to go into the liquor store. So the dog and i are waiting and soon i hear gunshots coming from the store. Then silence. Then sirens. The dog didn't seem concerned. after a long while they pulled some bodies out, covered by sheets. I can't be sure if it was the guy with the dog, but if it wasn't him, well i don't know why he didn't come back for his dog.

luckily, the guy was a responsible pet owner, bein's that his dog had a tag with his address. So i walked the dog home. No one answered, but the door was open. we went inside and couldn't find anyone. I figured he wouldn't be coming home, so i made myself a bean burrito. i had just taken a big bite when there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and saw a young teen standing there. We stood in silence, staring at each other while i chewed my burrito. He then held out some cash. I looked around behind me, saw a bag of weed on the coffee table, and handed it to the kid. He smiled and left, and i finished my burrito.

I sat down on the couch with the dog and watched a little tv. nothing was on, so i got bored and started going through a stack of mail on the coffee table. junk mail, bills...a reminder from the vet, the dog's vaccinations are due...ooh, a ticket to the musical tonight! Oklahoma, my favorite! Well, i got a couple of hours to kill until the musical...i guess i should take the dog to the vet.

The drug money more than covered the cost of the dog's shots, so i offered to pay for the shots of the dog next to me. The dog's owner at first said no, but i told her "it's okay, it's drug money, it's not mine." She looked puzzled, but graciously accepted. We chatted for a few minutes, during which time she mentioned she had a musical that night. So we went and had a few drinks before the musical. then a few more. by the time the musical started we were pretty drunk.

The people at the musical were lame. For starters, they said we couldn't bring in the bottle we had picked up. then they said the dogs couldn't go in. So i said i'd wait outside, she could go in and let us all in throught the back door. So there i was in the alley, with the dogs and the bottle, singing oklahoma songs.

My friend let me in, but we were causing quite a scene and they called the cops. Damn, i just wanna see Oklahoma! When the cops came in we ran out the same exit we had come in through. With the heat chasing us we split up. The dogs followed me. I got away, but now had two dogs. The new one didn't have a name tag, and i didn't know where that chick lived.

So now i have two dogs. This is getting out of control. I gotta find a place for these guys. So i went to my friend Tamryn's house (I knew she'd be at the musical also) and left the dogs at her place. Now i just gotta act all stupid the next time I see her, and she'll never know it was me.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Dad-deee! cried the little girl with the red dress and the huge smile, toddling towards me with her arms up. I smiled back, knelt down, and wrapping my arms around her to pick her up and give her a big hug, said “Hi, Angelina!”

Her mother sat on the sofa just a few feet away, watching and smiling. I smiled back and walked over to her, still carrying the little girl. I bent down and gave her a kiss. “Hi mommy!”

I put Angelina down. She kept smiling and making noise and proceeded to do her marching dance around the little living room, which she often did when she was happy. She was just over 2 years old, barely more than a baby. Just big enough to actually be a little person. She was absolutely adorable. Not a care in the world, except maybe that I watched her do her dance/march. I wished she was mine, although our different skin made it obvious she wasn’t.

Angelina was the offspring of my young girlfriend Brenda. Brenda was a slender Ugandan girl with a beautiful smile, perfect skin, and a sexy body that only a 19 year old can have. Many African women are single mothers because of HIV and other hardships that are just a part of the reality of living in Uganda. But Brenda’s ex just wasn’t interested in having a kid. After he tired of beating Brenda he left. If he could see Angelina now, looking up with those big brown eyes, showing me the flowers she had picked today. Would he have left?

I had never had a kid, so my new role of Angelina’s daddy was also a crash course in the fatherhood stuff. Maybe it was because I had avoided it for so long that I actually found amazement in it- “I am actually changing a diaper!” Brenda was quietly amused at my learning and excitement. Surely she was happy to be having help. Surely she was surprised, this is the kind of work that most Ugandan men simply will not do.

As far as I could tell, Angelina was a good kid. That probably made some of the less desirable tasks of fatherhood more tolerable. Most things were just fun, even little things like taking her to the store to pick up a few things. I enjoyed watching her look of amazement at just about everything. I realized that her mother probably didn’t get many chances to take her out much, so little events like this were probably big adventures. I tried to include her in such things whenever possible.

These things all made me ask myself: Am I finally, really ready for parenthood? Angelina helped get me over my fear of that. I was also well beyond the stage of wanting to be at the bar with my friends instead of home with the kid. I started to think that yes, I could actually be a daddy.

I took this news calmly and started looking at the future. Could we be a big happy family? I thought yes we could. We had only been dating a short time, but things had been pretty good so far. Of course, I would like to have another kid, in addition to Angelina. I thought about the need to avoid favoritism between the kids. Thinking about the feelings I was already having, I was quite sure that wouldn’t be a problem. I thought about other trivial, logistical issues such as watching the kids, taking them to school, doctor, etc. These wouldn’t be problems either, Brenda could very easily be a stay-at-home mom. I would love that for my kids.

There is a sad reason she could so easily be a stay-at-home mom. She’s had no education at all. Her mother left her when she was very young and her father was very poor. It is a sad injustice that in Uganda, one of the world’s poorer countries, parents must pay school fees. So, Brenda did not go to school. She could not read or write. She spoke English, but had a very simple vocabulary. I did not mind that she wasn’t educated. I started teaching her to read, very slowly, very basic letter combinations- cat, car, can. She struggled because it was so new, but she kept smiling and tried hard and was starting to put it together.

The differences in education, however, did lead to problems. For example, Brenda likes to smoke and drink. I don’t mind that she does, but I did tell her that if we were to have a kid she couldn’t do that while pregnant. She shrugged it off, and pointed to her kid saying “I did with her, and she’s fine.” Comically, at that moment Angelina had a big silly grin and was busy using her fingers to smear a handful of mashed bananas into her mouth. I realize that Angelina was probably not adversely affected, but I still would rather not take any chances. I have a degree in chemistry and a very strong biology background, and can envision the effects on a growing baby… Brenda does not have this background. But, she was convinced it was harmless, and the language barrier was enough that I could not explain why I felt it would be better to just quit for 9 months. I had the feeling that when I wasn’t around she would do things that could possibly affect our kid. It sounds silly because she wasn’t even pregnant, but just the thought still scared me.

We also encountered the predictable problem of not having much to talk about. The language barrier was part of it, the complete differences in education and background also contributed. In the highly passionate days of a new relationship this never seems to be a problem. However, it became evident after I had eaten something bad and was sick for a few days. During this time I wasn’t at all in the mood for sex, although I still looked at her smile and her body with great admiration and appreciation and greatly looked forward to getting better. But it made me realize just how physical our relationship was. During this time I also realized that at the end of the day I looked forward to seeing Angelina as much, if not more, than Brenda.

Angelina often woke up crying in the middle of the night. Usually she had kicked all her covers off and was cold. So I would get up at least twice in the night to hug her to stop the crying and wrap her blanket around her. I had been sick and really wanted to sleep, so when she cried the second time one night I asked Brenda, “can you check on her?” and she said no. I was in shock. No? Her child? I’m working tomorrow, and I’m the one always getting up to check? How many things are wrong with this?

So I got up and put Angelina back to sleep. But me, I was awake for a long time after that.

The next day I told Brenda I was quite upset that I asked her just one time to take care of her kid and she refused. I said she needed to go back to her place for a day or two, because if it happened again I would lose my patience- it was already worn very thin. She got very angry and packed all her things. I said “no, we’re not splitting up, I just want a night or two to myself.” But she did not listen, she was so angry about being asked to leave that she was convinced things were over- and she acted that way. The next day I got a text, she said she had gone back to the village and had taken Angelina to stay with her relatives there.

She came back to the city without Angelina. I told her my feelings- that Angelina should not be dumped in the village, and she told me her feelings- that she couldn’t keep her. We still have not been able to work it out and Angelina remains in the village.

Angelina has been caught in the middle our short, passionate fling. For Brenda, I’m not concerned- we’d dated just a few weeks. Sometimes things don’t work. But for Angelina? I feel bad, I miss her. I’ve been told that according to the culture here, when a woman with a child meets a man, the child goes to the grandparents (or aunts-low life expectancy means many kids don’t have grandparents.) A man does not raise someone else’s kid. I think that is a terrible tradition. It saddens me for Angelina, that against all odds her mother found a mzungu who would break that tradition, and even help with things like diapers. And yet now Angelina is in the village, away from her mother- after the relationship. Brenda did finally say that she would take her back, I am happy to hear that. I hope it’s true.

I am sure things between Brenda and I are over. Angelina will surely forget me- she’s just 2 years old. Will it be better to just let her forget? Probably. Or should I visit? I struggle with that, and am still trying to figure out what to do.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mugged (almost) on my first night in Kampala!

This is a short story about my very first night in Uganda…

I was very excited when I arrived in Entebbe. I had never been to Africa, so stepping off the plane into the warm, humid Ugandan night was the beginning of a great adventure. After clearing immigration and getting my bag, I stepped outside to see a throng of drivers waiting, one holding a sign with my name. I introduced myself and he handed me a note from my new boss, whom I had not yet met: “…Sorry we can’t pick you in person, but we all have other commitments. We’ve put you up in a hotel near where we stay. Get some rest, we start work Monday!...”

The driver dropped me at a small but nice hotel in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala, at around 11 o’clock on Saturday night. Although I was quite jet-lagged from my flight from the states, I was just too excited to sleep, and was also hungry. The man at the hotel told me the kitchen was closed and that there was no place nearby to eat at that hour. I knew that there was, because I had seen many small bars, street vendors, and so forth on our drive to the hotel. What he really meant was that there were no proper restaurants for mzungus (white people). But I didn’t care if it was a fancy place, so I went for a walk.

People looked at me a bit funny, bein’s the only white person out walking around at night. But they were just looks of very mild surprise, and everyone was quite friendly. I came across a young man cooking meat skewers on a grill set up on the side of the road. Lucky for me, English is the official language here, so I could ask him what he was cooking. Unlucky for me, his accent was very unfamiliar, so the only meat that he listed that I recognized was “goat”. So I ordered a stick of goat for 2000 shillings- about a dollar. It was damn tasty goat.

On my way back to the hotel I was feeling quite satisfied. I’d been walking for about 2 hours, had found something tasty to eat, and felt comfortable and safe walking alone at night. So complacency had set in as I walked into a dark, deserted stretch of road. A man was walking in the other direction, I smiled and said hello as you would expect to do. But as he was just past me he turned and swung and hit me hard on the side of the head! It was a hard enough hit that in combination with the surprise it knocked me to the ground. My mind ran very fast as I was falling. My first thought was “fuck me, I’ve been here two hours and am getting mugged!” My next thought was that I had taken all my cash with me, thinking it was safer with me than left alone in the hotel with 19th century locks, and that I now wished I had left it in the hotel. I realized I had some choices- 1) just give him my money, 2) run, or 3) fight. I’m normally not a violent person and can’t remember the last time I’d been in a fight. But, I wasn’t going to give him all my money, I didn’t know if people would help if I ran, and he didn’t appear armed or that big. So fight it was.

After I hit the ground I jumped up to face him, took a step forward, cocked one arm back and yelled “come on, fucker!!!” Of course I didn’t want to fight, but hoped I might intimidate him just like he was surely hoping to do to me. He hesitated, then took a step back. I took a step forward and yelled again. At this point he took another step back, looked at me like I was a crazy mzungu, and ran away. I was so excited by this that I almost chased after him, which would have surely been a bizarre sight for any spectators- after midnight on Saturday, some crazed mzungu chasing and screaming after a Ugandan man, who’s now realized that he’s picked a fight with a lunatic… As comical a sight as that would be, I was happy just to see him running away while I still had my wallet. So I watched him for a moment, then continued on to the hotel, just about a quarter mile.

Obviously, this could have happened even in my old hometown. I was out walking around late Saturday night near the bars, was obviously not a local, and my color meant I was rich. I was lucky that I learned some valuable lessons: don’t carry a lot of cash, and when in doubt- act crazy. The second part comes easy if you already have a bit of crazy in you.

I am very happy to add that I’ve been living in Uganda for over a year and have never felt threatened or unsafe since. I go out alone at night, I date Ugandan women, and I’ve been in many places and situations, both in the city and the villages, that tourists never get to see. So when people say Uganda is the friendliest country, I believe it is true.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Gulu flight

Today I flew a news crew from Moroto to Gulu in the islander. We usually load the islander with the passengers seated in back and the copilot seat empty, leaving the pilot to enjoy the view in peaceful solitude. But sometimes we make exceptions. For example, if a passenger seems interesting to talk to on a long flight, or if they happen to be attractive. Today I had a passenger that met both of those criteria. For some silly reason I feel that automatically assigning the copilot seat to the pretty woman is an abuse of my authority as captain of a small aircraft. Therefore, I asked for a volunteer- "So, anyone want to be copilot?", thinking to myself “pretty lady, pretty lady…” and my wish was granted when she said "Yes, I'd love to!"

It was just a one hour flight. We began talking about jobs. She thought flying a small plane around Uganda was the coolest thing and wanted to know all about how I became a pilot, and how I came to Africa. So I told her my life story, which took about three minutes. Meanwhile, I was quite fascinated by her job- traveling around the world as a television news correspondent. I found it funny that we both thought our own jobs were nothing extraordinary but were fascinated by the other’s. So although were each very interested in the other’s profession, she won and we ended up spending most of the flight talking about airplanes and aviation.

I did the usual basic teaching stuff- a thumb and two fingers is all it takes to move the stick, gently pull on the stick and the nose comes towards you, pushing moves the nose away, and moving the stick left and right rolls the aircraft in and out of banks. I demonstrated each of these as I talked about them, then gave her the controls. It is amazing, I’ve probably done that a thousand times in my 7000+ hours of flying and instructing, yet it is still such a great thing to see someone fly an airplane for the first time! Her response was typical- her eyes were full of excitement and her smile was huge as she saw the airplane gently respond to her small control inputs. I still remember the first time someone let me do that, so I can understand people’s amazement with their first experience of flying an airplane.

She flew for quite awhile while she asked many other questions- how do we navigate, what causes turbulence, why do planes crash, and so on. Soon we were descending into Gulu. I took the plane and explained what I was doing as we went through the approach and landing. The runway is huge, so even after landing long we still had a ways to go to reach parking. So I kept some power in the engines to give us just enough speed and airflow to keep the nose up as we rolled down the runway for a few thousand feet. She asked “when does the nose come down?” just as we got slow and the nosewheel gently touched.

After landing, she was on the phone immediately- they had a lot to coordinate for their story. But I also overheard her saying “I flew the plane!” When she was off the phone she went on to say she no longer feared flying and wanted to learn to fly herself.

That was a good flight!