I think that if I had an identical twin sister I would have spent a large portion of my youth consumed with jealousy and/or petty hatred. I always thought those Sweet Valley dumbos must have hated each other. The girls on Sister, Sister were pretty convincing bffs, but I’m not buying it. I think it would be rough. Thankfully, I was blessed with a twin brother, and he was blessed with an aptitude for finance, so he recently coughed up the absurd amount of money necessary to travel to Africa, and paid me a visit. I use this term quite consciously: James was more than generous when it came to picking up the tab for certain expensive ape-viewing excursions. Gorillas may be promiscuous, but they ain’t cheap.

ohmygod. I crack myself up.

James and I took different paths in life. We split along gender stereotypes to an eerie degree: I was into drama, he was into sports, I majored in English, he majored in Business, I became a teacher, he became a banker. The one exception to these 1950s-style life paths is that I was way stronger in the womb and took all the nutrients and pushed my way out first and James had to be in an incubator. HAH! I like to ponder that when someone brings it to my attention that he currently drives a Porsche, while I would be hard pressed to afford a good mountain bike. The bottom line, however, is that we get along very well, and he makes a great traveling companion.

To introduce James to the wonderful country of Uganda I thought it was appropriate to make him spend thirteen straight hours in a car on our way to do a gorilla trek. It was only supposed to be eleven, but we got a flat, and the spare had conveniently been dislodged by an earlier bump and was nowhere to be found. It was a perfect introduction to Africa actually, as James and I set by the side of the road, enduring the good-natured taunts of passer-bys and hoping that our driver returned at some point. At the end of it all our hotel was less than luxurious, but had an enterprising manager. He even went out to the shop to see if they had bananas for the packed lunch we needed for the next day. They didn’t, so we were back to two boiled eggs and a slice of bread. We confirmed that food really was not the place’s strong suit as James bravely hacked into a foreign looking combination of mushrooms and red clumps that was optimistically labeled ‘hamburger.’

James surveys the landscape following our breakdown

Everything became worth it the next day though, when we went on our gorilla trek. The scenery in the Western part of the country is amazing, especially near the borders with DRC and Rwanda, which is exactly where we were. The area is almost always referred to as the Switzerland of Africa in guidebooks. I enjoy joking about this, but was genuinely impressed by the alpine-like gorgeousness around me. Three huge volcanoes straddle the borders between the three countries, and we were trekking around their bases, in windswept, flower-filled, lush countryside that could have been the West of Ireland on its good days.

Purty volcano

The comparisons to Ireland stopped when our guide identified some cunning tracker’s signal (notches in tree trunks and bent branches and all that) and we turned abruptly into a bamboo forest. I think the Rambo movies may be a more appropriate comparison for this section of the trek, or, of course, Tarzan. (I’ve spent a long time trying to think of a witty title for this blog entry that somehow incorporates the whole “Me Tarzan. You Jane” bit. I’ve failed, but please do leave your suggestions in the comment section and I’ll think about changing the current title.) The bamboo stalks were tall and thick, and we had to wriggle and pry our way through sections of them. Whenever the wind blew the stalks hit each other, creating an eerie wind-chime rustling. Even though we were preceded by five extremely experienced trackers, one guide, and two armed escorts, I entertained fantasies of being the first one to actually spot the gorillas. “Oh look guys,” I’d say all nonchalantly, “There they are,” and everyone would congratulate me on my super animal surveillance powers. Then the gorillas would take me as one of their own and I would definitely get to hug a baby gorilla. Clearly, this didn’t happen, but my eager scanning of the nearby landscape did result in several easily-avoidable trips.

After about an hour we caught up to the trackers who had been prowling around ahead of us, and although there was very little conversation in English it became apparent that we were in hot pursuit of a family of gorillas. First we came across their little sleeping nests, scattered in a particularly bushy section of the forest. A few minutes later our guide turned around with a look on his face as if all his birthdays had come at once: “We are with the gorillas.” And sure enough, around the next tree clump there was a family of five or so huge mountain gorillas just chillin. The silverback was lying on his belly, head propped up on one hand, disinterestedly picking at the fur on his arm. As we all crouched around and began our paparazzi impression he glanced up at us, and I swear rolled his eyes. We were booooooooring. The gorillas, however, were not. It was a weird, surreal feeling. I kept expecting someone to yell “Cut!” and some sweaty man to emerge from his very realistic gorilla costume.

This silverback appears to  be sulking.

They are huge, beautiful, strange creatures. At various points family members entered and exited the clearing, and we eventually had three silverbacks about five meters away from us. Two of the younger members were playing around and ended up in a sort of bear hug, moving roly-poly down the nearby hill. It was like observing a very quiet human family on a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park. It was enthralling just to stare at their bizarre anatomy and wonder at the craziness of the biological world.

This silverback appears to be eating

Wait–which one is your  brother?  I can’t tell.

The Switzerland of Africa

After sixteen more hours in the car, with an overnight stop in Kampala (where I expertly guided James to the worst Italian restaurant in town), we made it to the village. I was really excited to have a family member actually see all the stuff I’ve been writing about for the past seven months, and our two days in the village didn’t disappoint. James good-naturedly put up with everything as I gleefully checked off the items on my ‘real village experience’ list:

Torrential rain that traps you at school and stands between you and the food at the guest house you’ve been craving since about 10:30am: check.

Mud-soaked roadway that requires you to dress and walk like an idiot: check.

Impromptu speech in front of the whole school and various guests of honor: check.

Presentation of a cow to said guest of honor, inside the school library: check.

Breathtakingly steep climb of an undetermined distance to a student’s home: check.

Eating unidentified chicken parts to be polite: check.

James speechifying

I guess that would be the cynical take on matters. James also got to experience some of what I consider the best parts of life here. He saw the students singing and dancing and generally being wonderful human beings. He met Papa, and watched him try not to fall asleep during the cow presentation ceremony. He saw peoples’ reactions when we played the Pole to Pole episode of the Planet Earth DVDs, and everyone from age 5 to 75 couldn’t take their eyes off the screen. He visited my student Isaac’s home and met his absurdly grateful family and ate the feast they put in front of us while their chicks and puppies wandered around our feet. He watched Isaac literally dig new steps so that I could descend from the perilous latrine location. He took a bucket bath and played cards and read by lantern light and went to bed by 10pm. Boring as it sounds, I’ve grown to love that routine.

James with Isaac and Isaac’s father

After a little village down time, we were, apparently, ready to party. James’ old college friend, Louisa, is working in Gulu and came down to Kampala to meet us. We got to stay in her friend’s lovely UN house and enjoy strange comforts like electricity and running water. She also knows all the Kampala hot spots, and took us to by far and away the best club I’ve been to since I’ve been here. We drank a lot of Red Bull (why?) and danced our pants off. I was befriended by a random Brit who kept trying to get me to dance salsa with him to techno music. At first I found it amusing, but by the end of the evening he was only kept at bay by Louisa’s impressive NBA-style defensive maneuvers.

Oh Kampala at 4:30am.  You crazy.

The next day was largely spent nursing hangovers, although James and Louisa visited an orphanage she used to work for while I went to use the internet and fight with this very blogging website. We’re currently not seeing eye-to-eye on picture sizes, but we’re working through our issues at dial-up speed. We all reunited to take advantage of Uganda’s only movie theatre and watch the new Batman movie. At a key climactic moment there was some sort of malfunction and the screen went dark. Another classic African moment for James’ list, but thankfully it came back on after about five minutes.

As a last hurrah we did the Jinja thing. I wasn’t really up for rafting again, considering my heart rate is still slowing from the last time I did it, but James was game. I opted for the more peaceful (or so I thought) activity of horseback riding. It was a quiet day at the stables, so it was just me and the guide on the trek. It was sunny and stunningly beautiful—ambling along village roads and through sugar cane fields. I’ve had a fair amount of experience riding, so I was excited to do a bit of cantering and all that. Apparently my horse sensed my over-confidence and decided to bring me back down to earth. Literally.

ohmygod. Another zinger.

Anyhoo, we set off on a brisk canter through a field, and it went something like this:

Me: Hey there horsy, this is a tad fast for my liking, won’t you pretty please slow down?

Horse: No. (executes perfect bucking maneuver that lands me about half-way up his neck)

Me: garbled sounds of fear

Guide: (turning around) Hey! Sit back down. SIT BACK DOWN!

Me: Oh really? Is that what I should do? I thought I’d just hang out here on his neck for the rest of the ride. Thank you so much for your great advice.

Thump, roll, mud splatter, muffled yell.

So I was way more shaken up by my horseback experience than James was by his encounter with grade five rapids. It figures.

Looking back we accomplished an impressive itinerary really. And James was even on time for his 9:00am board meeting in Amsterdam the morning after he flew out. Very efficient.

I think the fact that we haven’t seen each other in a while helped me notice some things about James that I’ve overlooked before. For example, he makes exactly the same sort of blown-out cheek, determined, facial expression as my dad in times of physical duress, as evidenced by the rafting footage. He also sticks his tongue out a little when he’s concentrating on something, just like my mom. However, my biggest discovery occurred within hours of his arrival at Entebbe. Devoted readers of the blog, and anyone who has ever accompanied me to a bar, or on a car journey of over 20 minutes, will be familiar with my tempestuous relationship with my bladder. Well, guess who else needs to pee a lot more than an average human and describes his bladder as ‘pea-sized’???

My twin brother, that’s who!

Studying this phenomenon has led me to one, undeniable, conclusion: in some freak accident of biology, James and I actually split one bladder in the womb. We each only have half of a regular human bladder! It explains so much! I wonder if Dateline or the Jerry Springer Show will want to do a feature on us? Here’s hoping he’s as comfortable discussing his bladder capacity in a public forum as I apparently am.

So now it’s back to village time for me, with no family members to entertain. Things are a lot quieter around here now that summer’s over, so I’ve decided to set myself a series of mental challenges to help pass the time. At the moment I am not allowed to eat anything that has been fried. This removes about fifty percent of my dietary options around here, but I think it’s worth it, as I could probably solve the world’s fuel crisis if they could figure out a way to efficiently harvest the oil from the pores on my face.

I just passed the seven month mark, and I’m entering that phase where it seems like so much and so little has happened since I’ve been here that I’m utterly confused as to my next step. Do let me know if you have any bright ideas, or if you too want to come and have a rollicking African adventure avec moi. I know I could get a gorilla to hug me, if I just had one more chance . . . .