You can learn so much when you travel, it teaches you about the differences and
similarities between people around the world. I have found that people really want two
things, a warm place to sleep and a better situation for our children; the differences arise
in ways of getting there and in our circumstances.
I chose to stop in Dubai to see the opulence; I knew Uganda would offer the other
end of the spectrum and it did not disappoint. On the way from the country’s only
international airport (Entebbe) I saw the remains of a failed international terrorist attack
30 years earlier—the fuselage of the plane still on the runway. I did not have to wait long
to see the distinctions, they were apparent in the take off and landing of the flight.
Amanda was there, doing the practicum for her degree; she had insisted that her
mom and I visit separately to break up her stay. Though I arrived early in her term, she
had a handle on the way things worked. On the way home from the airport we stopped at
a market to get some vegetables for supper. She was buying peppers and when offered
two for a ‘defined price’, she told the vendor “Not the mzungu price. I know it should be
three. I buy from you all the time.” The third pepper was added to the bag.
I am sure there are more discreet names than ‘skin tax’ but it is what it is; new
comers pay more than locals. It is the same on beaches in Mexico; the un-tanned are ripe
for picking and vendors flock to them. The rule of commerce is ‘charge what the market
will bear’, and it works from apples to Apple.
I am always surprised when people say they are going to Africa and, at least in
conversation, treat the entire continent as one country. This, my third visit to the
continent showed me yet another very unique country. Morocco in the north, and South
Africa in the south were not at all like Uganda on the eastern edge of central Africa.
Thirty years had passed since the deposition of Idi Amin but his legacy of an
economy in shambles lived on. The Ugandan shilling was trading at about 3,000 to the
Canadian dollar so a trip to the bank could result in an inch and half of bills—not
comfortable in one’s wallet. For some reason having that amount of money just feels
dangerous because of all the zeros, yet I could have $200 US in my wallet and think
nothing of it. The legend around this dictator’s economic policy was that when he had the
country’s currency printed in England the printer asked how he would pay and the reply
was, “You have the plates, print as much money as you wish for yourself.”
Our first trip home from the bank offered another new experience; the taxi was in
fact a motorcycle and the driver seemed surprised when Amanda and I questioned how
both of us could be his passengers, but there was no car in the area so we climbed aboard
and got home without mishap.
Uganda delivered a message to me: Do not expect things to be as you expect.
I was used to electricity being a constant. In Uganda that is not the case.
Blackouts happen unannounced for various lengths of time. That means it is a good idea
to have a flashlight handy at all times, and a bad idea to overstock the fridge because a
blackout lasting a day or so results in a lot of spoiled food. People adjust.
I believed all golf courses had holes numbering in multiples of nine; in Kampala I
found a golf course with 15 holes. That was what the space allowed and people adjusted.
(The embroidered patch from the course is still on my golf bag.)
Amanda had set up a few tours for me, one of them to a farm for Disabled
Farmers. I had done some work with Disabled Farmers of Manitoba, an organization that
helps farmers adapt to life, often after a farm accident, equipping them to continue
operating their farms. I expected to see a similarly purposed operation on my visit to the
Farm for Disabled in rural Uganda and found an entirely different approach.
The farm was in the process of being built, which could take several more years
but it already had some occupants.
“There are no social programs in our country, so disabled people have little
chance to earn a living. Often they end up begging or selling pencils on the street. The
purpose of this farm is to allow them to make a living and be a contributing member of
society,” said the manager as we toured the faculty.
While still under construction, there was a housing area resembling motel rooms
to house the residents. The farm was going to be used as a training facility and these
rooms were being built to accommodate a person who would be accompanying the
disabled person. It was a well laid-out plan and offered some potential but as so often the
case, funding was a problem.
The production area did not have anywhere near the mechanization of a North
American farm, much less the gadgetry I have seen to help farmers in and out of their
The manager introduced me to ‘Blind Henry’ (that is how he introduced the man
in charge of the chicken coop). Henry fed and watered the chickens daily. He explained
that he had been a chicken farmer before a virus invaded and wiped out the poultry and
cost him his vision. He did have a recipe for a medicine that controlled the virus, and he
had restored his flock of five birds—thanks to donations from a Canadian source.
The next visit was a goat pen, built during a workshop at the farm the previous
summer. As we entered the pen a goat escaped and we watched a mini rodeo in the
process of its recapture.
A friend had told me that a trip to Africa was the most life-changing trip he had
ever taken—and he had travelled a fair bit. I did not understand what he meant until I
spent some time in Uganda. The countryside, the people and their approach to
life—everything was so different, especially the wild life.
Amanda and I took a few trips to areas where we could photograph animals in the
wild and each one was exciting, though I did surprise myself at how quickly I went from
being amazing at photographing an elephant and a cape buffalo, to wanting the two of
them to appear in the same picture. I had to stop and think about this: I am in the wild and
photographing an elephant or a giraffe; I am trying to get an angle where two of them
appear in the same frame. Really?
One of the trips we took involved an overnight experience, though it could not
really be called camping. We were staying in a tent built on a platform raised about 30
inches from the ground. Meals were served in a dining room that had the elegance of a
white tablecloth restaurant—with open windows so a giraffe could stick its head in.
While rated more in the nuisance category than a great photo opportunity, I was in
awe of the wart hogs, powerful diggers. They made their way into camp not at all
restricted by the humans walking about. Wart hogs were running every which way,
grunting and walking on their knees to root up anything they chose. Some of the sows
had little ones with them that showed no interest in staying with Mom; they were all
about digging up things on their own.
For sheer entertainment value I gave them a ten, but I am sure they were one
reason why our tent was on a raised platform. I would not have wanted them anywhere
near my garden, but I enjoyed watching them. When they headed off with their raised
tails sticking up, they were something to see.
I have always been a fan of elephants. In fact I invited an elephant trainer to our
home when he was in town with the circus. So the opportunity to see them in their natural
habitat was a treat. I spent a fair amount of time watching them interact and noticed their
young were much better behaved than young wart hogs. I got enough pics that even if I
had selected my very best ones I would have had enough for a picture book. They still
provide great memories when I go through my file of elephant photos.
Giraffes posed more of a challenge, first we did not see as many and secondly,
you are shooting from about the mid point of the animal and seldom get that eye-to-eye
Hippopotamuses are not photogenic but the speed—or lack of speed at which they
move makes them ideal subjects. We were informed that they are responsible for more
deaths than the Big Five combined (Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Cape Buffalos, and
Rhinoceros). The majority of these deaths are caused by tipping a boatload of tourists
trying to get too close; some come from them tipping a vehicle off the road. They do not
have the features that beg photos, and when they do open their mouth, it is just a large
The Cape Buffalo was most accommodating with having another species in the
pictures so I got my share of Buffalo portraits early; by the second day I was trying to add
another to the same frame.
It was never a highlight of the trip but it is a part of most of my travel
experiences: I have had my passport stolen on every continent except for Antarctica. The
Africa incident happened at the bus depot in Kampala.
Amanda and I were transferring from one bus to another—more accurately—to an
overcrowded van in the bus depot, which was little more than a parking lot with vehicles
jammed in every which way and masses of people making their way through it adding to
the melee. I had already had my passport removed from personal possession on several
occasions so I carried my wallet and passport in the front pocket of my pants to prevent
pickpockets from having an easy time of it.
When we arrived home I reached in my pocket to remove my wallet and place it
on my dresser when I found it was no longer there. It was gone, obviously someone in the
crowd at the bus depot needed it more than I did and had helped him self to it. It was
So I spent the next hour cancelling credit cards, asking to have replacements sent
to our address in Kampala, and beginning the process of getting a new passport for the
trip home. It was easier than in Nepal, but more of a challenge than London. I will leave
the Beijing story for another chapter.
One lesson I learned that surprised me a bit was how quickly people became
accustomed to asking me for money. I can only assume this was happening because of
my colour and being dressed differently—but it was common for school kids to stop me
on the sidewalk and ask if I could help them pay for their schooling. I took the time to
speak to a few and after questioning enough of them to see a pattern developing I quit,
realizing that by stopping to talk to them I was only raising false hope in them. The usual
amount of the request was for $1,000, which I thought was a bit rich. I suppose if you’re
asking you might as well go big, but I could not see many people responding in a positive
way to that request.