Words & photos: Justin Long
When I stepped off the plane into this country, I realized it violated every thought I ever had about people. Uganda is full of poverty, malnutrition, corruption, an AIDS epidemic, young businesses, Malaria, churches on every corner, and has no credit cards. I was a Mzungu (name for the "white people"), and I felt like that Southern African-American boy sitting at the back of the bus. Everyone stared at me.
The next day I arrived in the small town of Mbarara. Here is where I found my "home base", Montfort House, and the Holy Innocents Children's Hospital I was here to support. This was a courtyard-style house built by missionaries from the order of Montfort during the 1980’s civil war, and they're probably the best-managed missionaries in this part of town. I quickly learned this was a safe and comfortable home.
I had collaborated with some visiting doctors before I left the country. They asked me to take some cleaning supplies that I could only fit in my ski bag. What resulted was a ski bag stuffed with plastic baggies tightly packed with cleaning contents, looking like I was smuggling the “white stuff” on the plane. TSA promptly gave me a notice of inspection.
Photo courtesy of Rwenzori Trekking Services
My original plan was to head to the Rwenzori Mountains within the first week of arrival. When I opened up the local paper the week's headlines included "Massive Crevasse Opens on Mt. Stanley" and "Dutchman Falls in Crevasse". I changed my plans.
In two weeks a group from the University of San Diego would be arriving to help the hospital. They were bringing a white box GPS tracker courteously supplied by IonEarth.com so everyone could watch my position live online. It was a smarter decision to wait until the end of the month to climb. Considering weather, safety and timing, this decision would pay off well (Some girls from Quebec deserve credit for helping me recreate the moment the GPS arrived).
Two weeks later I got my first genuine Ugandan experience at the bus depot. I needed to get to a town named Kasese at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains, and the coach bus assigned for the trip was missing. The bus depot resembled the chaos of a primitive town market. The other way of transport to Kasese was by taxi. And the Ugandan taxis are nothing like the Prius taxis of Vancouver.
Before I knew it I was being shoved into a van with "taxi" painted on the door. There were enough seats for about 12 people. This taxi had 20 people shoved inside. This was the way of making money for taxi operators. People would often sit on top of another until the taxi could hold no more people.
After a monotonous ride of stopping and going, taxi operators arguing, and every farm animal that could fit inside a van, I finally arrived in Kasese. I hopped off at a gas station in the middle of town where I waited for my contact to arrive and show me around. My phone call wouldn't go through, and quickly every person in town saw me stranded and wanted to approach me and ask me for my telephone number (looking for money friends). Eventually my contact arrived to find me lying down on a patch of grass in the middle of town; locals were surrounding me staring at me.
He quickly helped me find a private driver to take me to the town of Kilembe. After some price bartering (which I frequently needed to do because there's always an "African" price and a "Mzungu" price) I was finally on the road. It took a short drive and a lot of pothole dodging, but I made it safely to Rwenzori Trekking Services.
I was lucky to discover this company; RTS is a brand new company who rigorously trains its guides, receives support from the Ugandan Rangers (who provide weapons in the case an expedition runs into Congolese rebels or bandits), and has access to the most scenic (but also most challenging) route to Mt. Stanley. The hostel was located behind the local river that serves as a gateway to the mountains.
I settled in the last real room I would have for the next 10 days. I ate the last piece of chocolate and enjoyed the last drink I would have for the rest of the expedition. Tonight I met the first of my two guides, Enok, and we reviewed equipment and supplies and shared stories. Tomorrow we would begin the journey bright and early.
Stay tuned to NS for parts 2 and 3 of the journey. This charity was made possible by Oakley, Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland, ACG, IonEarth.com, and the Vancity Buzz.