Greetings from Thailand everyone! Kiri here. After nine months living in New Zealand, I’m now sending you this interview from my favourite country in the world. Will’s over in Cambodia causing the usual havoc I’m sure. But asides from our South East Asian ramblings, today’s interview takes you to a completely different continent – Africa. The lovely Shara of SKJ Travel has a wonderful experience to share with you, so kick back and over we go to Uganda.
Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Uganda?
Well, I get people to remember how to pronounce my name – Shara – with the phrase, “share a beer.” That introduction probably already tells you a lot about me.
My website is an outgrowth of my original mail-list … people signed up to the list and I sent dispatches from the road as emails – literally, letters to home. Though I’ve now established a group of websites to make posts on, the nature of them hasn’t changed.
What made you choose this country and what were your first impressions?
In truth, the location of Uganda was incidental to what I wanted to do on this trip: work with chimpanzees. I researched available opportunities for this kind of volunteer work in Africa, and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre was the most affordable option, as I’m a person of limited means. Once I started researching what else I should do in the country while I’m there, I was overwhelmed at the wildlife opportunities and the landscape descriptions. It is, after all, known as “the pearl of Africa.”
I spent my first month there working as a volunteer at the UWEC in the chimp house, and I lived in a flat on the UWEC grounds, so I was immediately positioned in local life, made friends quickly, had to shop for myself, saw what conditions existed behind the scenes. My first impression, in all honesty, was that the place was a little more Third World than I anticipated, or at least I didn’t understand fully until then what that moniker really implied for the state of a country in terms of technology, infrastructure, product availability, the standards of education and the education level of the general population, etc. At the same time, I was humbled by how friendly and helpful people were to me everywhere I went, and everywhere was jungle – I loved it.
How much money can someone travel around Uganda for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
Perhaps ironically, considering it’s a Third World country, it’s really not that cheap to be a tourist in Uganda. If you can live as a local, then great, you can definitely stretch a dollar far. But Uganda as a burgeoning tourist destination hasn’t yet realized that not all tourists are filthy rich. Most hotels are ridiculously over-priced (one place somewhat worthy of the price was the Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park), and then there are a half handful of dirt-cheap hostels, but little exists in the private-room budget range, which is typically where I prefer to reside. Food and drink are cheap as long as you stay out of the overly touristy restaurants. Public transport in buses and mini-van taxis is incredibly cheap, but it’s because they pack in more people than a clown car. That’s not hyperbole. Local transport by boda boda (motorcycle taxi) is reasonable, but make sure you ask a local how much it should cost between destinations before striking a price with a driver. Private vehicle hire is unfortunately (and for me, prohibitively) expensive.
Prices are so high for entry to national parks and for trekking opportunities, that the only Ugandans who have seen their own national treasures are tour guides or the very wealthy … a tiny minority. Particularly the gorilla trekking … USD$500 for a permit alone … For some perspective, one of my co-workers, an intern, at the UWEC pays USD$60 per month in rent, and sometimes has to forego eating dinner and walk 45 minutes to/from work to scrape up for that rent. The $500 was a hardship for me, but I live in a country where I have the freedom to rack up unbridled amounts of credit card debt at the ATM machine. (And to be sure, it was totally worth it.)
Outdoor markets are cheap for things like clothing, but again ask a local what you should pay or else you will be offered the “mzungu” price at substantial mark-up.
What is the local cuisine like? Did you find yourself trying new things or pining for the familiars of home?
If you like mushy food, Uganda is your country. Cooked, mashed banana and cooked, mashed cassava are the primary staples, along with other cooked, mashed vegetables, and typically a meat in tasty broth is spooned on top. I had to adjust to the mush. Chicken – fried or baked – and chips are a mainstay of street vendors, as well as chapattis. Mobile vendors (who come up to bus/taxi windows) seem to favour kabobs of goat meat. Fortunately, Uganda has a pretty good selection of beer, so I was never in danger of starving. Beer is food, in my book. My favourite beer was Nile Special.
What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Uganda and why?
I know this question refers to festivals or holidays, or places of national or regional interest, maybe a type of dancing or drinking, but I’ll tell you something different. What I got the biggest kick out of, which I considered a marvellous expression of the difference between my culture and theirs, was asking about bride prices and how much I would cost. People always laughed at my fascination, and for the record, I never got the same answer twice. Conversely, most of them were astounded to learn that you could marry a woman in America for nothing. The point is that often the best cultural activity is learning about it through personal conversation. In line with that, the other incredibly enlightening experience I had was couchsurfing at Lake Bunyoni. There was no electricity, so we chatted around a campfire each night. Those conversations were priceless. Couchsurfing is always an excellent venture, but its value rises proportionately as the gap between your cultures widens.
What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
My least favourite thing about travelling in Uganda was having to travel. Ha. No, I’m being facetious, but the buses and taxis can sometimes be a hell of a trial, especially for a claustrophobic person such as myself. And you need an iron bladder for long distance public transport. I literally refrained from eating and drinking on days of long transport.
My favourite thing about travelling the country was very simply seeing the beauty of the landscape as well as the glimpse at life so vastly different from my own … the mud huts with thatched roofs, the herds of cows with impressive horns being shepherded along the road, the colourful clothing, the roadside vendors and banana-laden bicyclists, etc.
Travelling through the national parks is fantastic – the wildlife is very abundant; you’ll see tons of animals at close range. Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls were the only places where I splurged on a private driver, and I believe it was worth it not to be crammed into a safari vehicle with a group of strangers all vying for the same photo ops. The reason the top of this elephant is cut off is because we were so close to her, she wouldn’t fit inside my 250 mm lens.
What’s one thing you can’t travel around Uganda without?
This may not sound like practical advice, but if you are making your way around independently, not on a guided safari, you really can’t do without a bottle full of proverbial chill pills. Things aren’t going to work out easy as pie, and definitely not on an American-style time schedule. Punctuality is impossible on public transport.
A practical item is a stand-up flashlight – my book light was awesome because it could sit on a table-top on its clip and function as a free-standing lamp. I used to think headlamps were convenient, but for just hanging out inside your hotel room or mud hut, this was way more comfortable. No place has reliable power – cities have rolling blackouts, and one place I stayed for several days simply didn’t have electricity at all, other places for only certain hours of the day by generator. Make sure you have plenty of batteries for your camera and electronics and charge the hell out of them when you get electricity.
What kind of response have you had to your blogs about Uganda? What post had the most interest?
Owing to the style of my blog, I think the audience I appeal to most are “armchair travellers,” people who say, “I couldn’t do what you do, so I love reading about it.” So, for example, when in primitive living conditions, I would get a lot of “glad you are there to experience this for us” kind of remarks. The post that garnered the most “I wish I was there,” was the experience I had gorilla trekking (sublime beyond words … though I managed to write a lot of them). There was a lot of interest in a witch doctor in the Rwenzori mountain range, and in a post titled, “Salt and Sex.” A lot of people were amused by my relationship with “Martha,” my roommate in my flat at the UWEC. She was huge and hideous and I desperately wanted to murder her, but couldn’t bring myself to do it on account of her size, so we struck a truce as roommates. Martha was a cockroach.
I only take comments privately through my contact form. As I write in an intimate style as if every reader is my best friend, I also prefer feedback in a similarly personal manner; I don’t think the rest of the world needs to read comments directed at me.
If you could think of one thing you wished someone told you before you started travelling in Uganda what would it be?
That I would not be able to find a pair of scissors. Anywhere. Knives, machetes, sure. Scissors, no. All I wanted to do was cut my bangs. I asked in every hotel and restaurant, stores in the cities, photocopying shops and internet “cafes” (yes, this needs quotes), school supply shops … not even at the UWEC, one of the country’s self-proclaimed modernized gems, could I find a pair of scissors. I did not look in Kampala, as I spent no real time there except stuck for hours on the road in traffic jams, so maybe I could have found a pair there. Who knows. But it’s a big note to self should I (hopefully) return.
Thank you Shara!
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