Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uganda - Pearl of Africa

My trip to Uganda was on such short notice that I never took the time to read up on the country's info before I left. I have travelled to many places in West Africa, but unfortunately I could not say the same for East Africa. I wasn’t expecting much and my only consolation was the fact that it would only be for two nights and that I would at least be able to communicate in a language I am familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, I love Africa, but thinking about unfriendly immigration officers and traffic jams I thought that staying at home with my family would not have been a bad allternative. I was however curious to see Uganda and thought it would be good chance to do so. I like West Africa, but I could write books about corrupt customs officials, poor service, language barriers, stomach bugs and many other little irritations that you find in these otherwise beautiful countries. My first hindrance would be arriving in Uganda without a visa. In Luanda you can also receive a visa on arrival, but you have to be sure that you are in possession of all the required paperwork first. Despite the fact that you queue for an hour (if you are lucky), they sometimes take your passport from you and only give it back a couple of days later. Parting with my passport is not something I particular like doing in countries where the bribery scheme works better than the national lottery.

We arrived in Entebbe 20 minutes before the scheduled arrival time and contrary to what I was expecting, the visa counters were clearly marked and the queue very short. Obtaining the visa was a walk in the park. The queues for travelers WITH visas were much longer than the queue for travelers without visas and after I paid my 50 USD dollars I could just walk through. This took me about 5 minutes and I couldn’t disagree that traveling without a visa to Uganda is probably a better option than actually arriving with one. The only words spoken by the Immigration official was ‘Welcome to Uganda Sir’. ‘How long will you be staying?’ ‘That will be 50 USD’ and ‘Have a pleasant stay in Uganda’. All done with a big smile. Whenever I arrive back in South Africa and I am not met with a similar smile I almost feel we lose the first opportunity to make people feel welcome in our country. After all this is the "first impression" any tourist gets when he or she enters a foreign country. Now the friendly immigration officer alone made me realize that it is probably true what people say about the friendliness of East Africans compared to West Africans. The friendliness of the immigration officers was something I would find during my whole stay was not restricted to only one particular Ugandan citizen, but to the rest of the population as well.

The 40 km drive from Entebbe to Kampala took about 1 hour and when I reached the Sheraton Hotel I already felt that this country had a lot to offer. The roads were much more organized than what I am used to in other countries in Africa that I have visited, the road signs make sense, the drivers are much more courteous and the service at the hotel really made me feel welcome. Just before we entered Kampala we drove by a huge Coca-Cola bottle in the middle of a roundabout. In most African countries you usually find the statue commemorating some freedom struggle or the plight of the African continent. I had to smile and was wondering what the Coca-Cola Company had to do to get that particular spot, you cannot miss it. I foung it quite appropriate for myself because Coca-Cola has been some sort of comfort drink for me on many trips to Africa. My check-in at the hotel was met with the same enthusiasm that I received at the visa counter. I dropped my bags in my room and went for a couple of beers.

I finished my business the next morning without hassles and took some time off to shop at one of the local markets. Even here I could see the difference between East and West African traders. Walking past the stalls I was greeted politely and when I entered I was overwhelmed by their friendliness. In Cameroon I was nearly trampled alive by desperate stall owners pushing and pulling me in all directions in an effort to convince me that their stall has something better to sell. I guess business is must tougher in Cameroon than in Uganda then. After paying for the few items I mentioned to a friend that if this lady was going to thank me one more time then I'm going to ask her hand in marriage. I cannot imagine any man so lucky to have such a beautiful young woman showing so much appreciation for such a simple deed. After I’ve left I even felt bad for bargaining for a better price.

I usually try some local food whenever I go. I remember my first night in Paris when I ordered McDonalds much to the disappointment of my wife back home. It was late, I was hungry, and the menu was the only one I could understand at that crucial point. I can honestly say that after a couple of trips to France I’ve made up for that little faux pas of my first trip. I can even boast with frog legs on my list now. I was advised by a friend back home to try the fish from Lake Victoria, so I went for Tilapia. I can definitely recommend it. There were some interesting meats on the menu as well, but being a South African I have tried many of them before; crocodile, bush buck, springbok, to name but a few. I think the food in Uganda won’t disappoint a good trencherman and it reminded me a lot of what we eat back home. The evening at The Lawns Restaurant was well worth and a live African Jazz band under a hot African sky contributed to the ambience. I couldn’t stay late though because my flight back to Johannesburg was leaving very early the next morning so I headed back after my meal was finished. It was a very short trip and I am sure that I’ve only scratched the surface of what Uganda has to offer. I am pretty sure that I will go back there one day and explore a bit more.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 7 Habits of Highly Interesting People

I was sitting on a plane today on my way to Uganda. This is my first trip to Uganda and I was sure that I would write something about my first impressions about Kampala. But I was wrong. Slightly in front of me on the opposite side of the aisle was a girl sitting with Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" on her lap. I don't know how many people have read this book, but I have to admit that I have also read it many years ago when I thought being productive is the way to the top. 'What a load of bullshit' I would learn only later on in life. A summary of Covey's book on the Internet ends with "finally the seventh habit is one of renewal and continual improvement, that is, of building one's personal production capability. To be effective, one must find the proper balance between actually producing and improving one's capability to produce". Doesn't the thought of spending your entire life on earth with the aim of just "producing" make you sick? Next to me was a gentlemen sitting with grey hair and a sunburnt face with quite a few wrinkles. Not the wrinkles of an old man, but of someone who likes spending time outside and who loves to laugh. He must've been in his late 40's I thought at first, but when we started to chat I learned a few things about him that I would never have guessed just by looking at his outer appearance. He was Irish and his name is Joe and he has been working and living in Africa for over thirty years now. We started making conversation after I tried to bite the tomato from my salad in half only to cover his face with tomato juice and pips that squirted out from the side of the tomato. I apologized but he just laughed and thought it was quite funny in fact. We started chatting and he was telling me about his life, or "war stories" as he calls it. I was so intrigued with his experiences that I never stopped listening to him for one minute. He was chatting away with one story after the other, and I was gulping up every word he was saying. Every time when I looked in the direction of the girl who was struggling to get through Covey's first habit I was wondering if there isn't a book called the Seven Habits of Highly Interesting People?" If I ever have a choice between being highly effective or highly interesting I would certainly go for the latter. While coming in for the landing I was wondering what would make a person to be considered highly interesting by others? By looking at Joe and listening to him I tried to make up my own seven criteria of what is needed to be interesting to other people.
1) Be experienced - You cannot be interesting if you haven't had interesting experiences. You need stories to tell, not about yourself but about places and people you have met, things you have seen, hearts you have broken, lives you have saved. Try new hobbies every year, jump from a bridge with a chord aroud your feet and do as many activities as time and money allows. Never miss an opportunity to experience something new.
2) Be knowledgable - Know a bit about everything. You don't have to be an expert on global warming, but at least know that the polar caps are melting. Listen to the news and read the newspaper. Read books. Be aware of the latest technology and happenings. You have to be able to join in the conversation without looking as if you have just arrived from another planet. You need information about topics that other people just wonder about.
3) Remember finer detail - When you tell your stories make sure that you remember the people that you have met, their names and surnames. Remember the exact details when and where it happened. Remember the names of the people you are talking to, they will be the characters in your next story you are going to tell.
4) Be open to people - If you cannot communicate with people they will never know who and what you are. Don't be shy of talking to strangers, and don't be scared to ask them about their lives as well. This is how you gather information and how you create your next adventure. Tell your stories in such a way that people stay interested. Make jokes and show that you enjoy every minute of life.
5) Be different - Do things differently, dress differently from the masses. Stand out and be seen. You don't have to make a fool of yourself to be different, but be confident in what you are doing and saying. Have your opinions and philosophies and stick to it, never force it down other people's throats. Listen to other people's opinions as well. Be open-minded about everything.
6) Be interested - You can travel to a hundred countries, but if you are not interested in the people and their cultures, or what the countries have to offer you will never have interesting experiences and stories to tell. Listen to other people when they have something to tell, and show you are interested in their stories as well, even if they are not nearly as interesting as yours.
7) Stay mysterious - Don't tell people everything about yourself. Let them find out as conversations and time goes on. Surprize them with everything that was mentioned above. It is the best feeling when someone says "I still want to do this or that' and you can reply with "yes, I've done it before, it was awesome". When you meet a new person, don't blabber out everything about yourself. Don't tell them that you scuba dive and skydive and travel the world and do mountain biking and play the piano. One story will automatically go onto the next, and every time when you can fill in your own experiences and knowledge of the topic you will get more interesting by the minute.
Being more interesting isn't about sitting around at home an hour before meeting your friends for dinner and cramming some fun-facts into your head to bring up later. It's also not about "being productive" and earning the highest salary on the block. Even wealth gets boring. It's about living a fun-filled varied life, and really becoming the kind of person who has new things they can introduce to people.
Thanks Joe, you have inspired me to keep on living, doing more things, meeting more people and staying more interested in what the world and people have to offer. I cannot wait for the beer you promised to buy next time you visit Cape Town...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Uneasy Rider

A couple of days ago I turned forty-two. I remember my 30th birthday as if it happened only yesterday...the worst day of my life it seemed. I remember that I didn't want to get up that morning, my life seemed to be over. From thirty it was only downhill I believed. Two years ago I turned forty and I was sure it was the "best years of my life". I felt content with my life, I thought I have achieved everything I ever wanted to and that from now on it will be a breeze to carry on. Nothing to prove anymore, just live the life. Well, two years later and I am in a state of depression. Not only did my wife give me a book to read about a guy in his mid-life crisis who turned...yes...42, but three people mentioned in the past week to me that they see the signs. Now if a man my age wants to receive an insult, then this is it. It's worse than going bald, because some women do actually find bold men attractive. But show me one woman who likes a man who is experiencing a mid-life crisis. Not that any man should evaluate his health and physical condition on how many women still finds him attractive or not, but see...this is it...only a man in his mid-life crisis will use women and their likings as a yardstick. You see, although you think that you are definitely NOT in your mid-life crisis, you do, think and say things differently from men who still has to get there, or ones who have past that stage. Younger men might still think about their still growing financial status or their still growing amount of hair on their chest to convince themselves they have a few years to play with, while men past their mid-life crisis will think about how many of their original teeth they still have left and they couldn't care less if they die now or tomorrow as long as they can still eat the cookies they receive from their grandchildren. But a man in his mid-life crisis stage will think about his physical appearance. But there is something else that worries me. A couple of months ago this travel bug bit me big time. I decided to take my bike and hit the road. The point is I always wanted to do it. I've done many things in my life and this was still on my 'to-do-list'. I just never had the opportunity to do so, so little time, so many adventures. Well, I eventually made the time (and money) available and I enjoyed it so much that I was actually looking for a more appropriate bike to travel with. When I read the book by Mike Carter, "Uneasy Rider - Travels through a mid-life crisis" , he mentioned that when any man gets this urge to hit the road then it is a clear sign that he is in the middle of this crisis. So what make my longing since my twenties to hit the road different from his urge to do so at 42? Well, at least it was something that I wanted to do for many years, from when I was still a youngster. It is only now that I get the chance and have the finances to do so meaning it cannot be a mid-life crisis decision. Wrong! According to my wife the thought that I might not have many years left to do all these things drove me to the decision to get on my bike and ride. You see, she believes the driving force behind this is knowing that my time is running out, not something that I only got time to do now. Now that is enough to crash into the next lamppost....even my wife thinks I am wonder she thought I might like to read this the ripe age of 42!

Mike Carter mentions in the first couple of chapters about the signs, and it's scary. I am not going to go into that detail, I don't want people to know what i'm going through, but I am sure I can relate to many of his examples. As I am reading the book I get totally annoyed that, despite his newly found freedom along the road and through 20 countries, he still cannot find a lovely woman to shag. The ones that he does find are in the same little mid-life crisis boat and although he describes them as atrractive, you can see that he finds anything that wears make-up and does not need to shave its facial hairs attractive. You see, again I am evaluating his "youth and appearance" by the amount of women he can find. I have not finished reading the book yet, but I sure hope that he learned something from his 6-month trip around Europe. I hope that when I put the book down that I will know exactly what to do to skip this stage completely, or if I have to do something like traveling for 6 months around Africa on my scooter or climb Kilimanjaro with bare feet, that I will get on doing it and past this stage rather sooner than later. To me my life has not changed, I have not changed. Yes, I am much more content, but some say that is also a sign of getting old. And the fact that I am looking forward to my trip to Uganda next week? Is it a "mid-life crisis excitement" or an "adventure excitement"? I wish not to voice my opinion on that now....

Saturday, September 5, 2009

From Fleas to Favourites

I don't know where the word fleamarket comes from and Wikipedia's explanation does not satisfy my curiosity either. From the first time I heard the word I couldn't help but think of those little creatures that jump on you and make you scratch more than your dog usually does . Maybe it does indeed have something to do with scratching, but more like scratching between stuff that you don't really want until you find something that you actually convince yourself you do really need. I don't particularly like flea markets, too be honest. Most of the stuff you see at every flea market across the country is the same and too many people bumping against me is also something I prefer to avoid as much as possible. There are off course other markets, like arts and crafts markets. Here you will find stuff that is more unique, but not necessarily more useful. Usually it is some piece of "artwork" created by people trying to make ends meet with the little creativity they received from the good Lord. I have to believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, because I hardly ever find anything I do like...and if I do then you can be sure my wife will say that there is no place for that "monstrosity" in our house. A more useful type of fleamarket for me is definately the farmer's market. Here you find fresh fruit and vegetables, cakes and rusks and everything else that's good for the stomach. Everything usually cheaper than what you will pay for it in your favourite grocery store and definately much fresher. I am sure there are other markets as well which I have not mentioned here, but if you ever come to Cape Town and your love fleamarkets then there is already plenty for you to do here.

There is however one fleamarket in the Cape Town area which I would spend my entire Saturday morning if I ever do get the chance. My wife hates the scene and never wants to accompany me there, but I don't really care. Being alone gives me time to walk from one stall to the next until I am satisfied that I have laid my eyes upon everything there is to see. This is the Milnerton Fleamarket. Now according to my interpretation of what a fleamarket really is, then this should be it. I do however think that this type of fleamarket originated from what was known in the older days as a boot sale. A boot sale was a place where people put all the junk they didn't want in their car boot, parked alongside the road and tried to sell it to whoever might be interested. The prices were usually very low because there were no way that you were taking that junk back home again. I don't think Milnerton Fleamarket is a boot sale in the true sense of the word, but the stuff that you find there you won't find on any other fleamarket. Ok, you might find one or two stalls selling the same stuff, but in general all the goods are what some people might consider to be junk, but to some people it might be gold. If you have any electrical appliance in your home that needs a part and you cannot find it, I bet you will get it at the this fleamarket. You can buy the exact model for a fifth of the price you would pay just to import the part from Europe, and have the rest of the appliance for spare parts. If you ever buy any set of hand tools from a hardware shop again, believe me you would be paying more than triple than what it would be at this fleamarket. One thing I have discovered though is that not all the poeple selling "junk" sees it as junk. Some people know that there is some value in old things. I was looking for an old ordinary sickle to use as a display on my garden wall. The lady selling old garden tools as antiques asked me R55-00, the guy selling his old garden tools as junk asked me R5-00 for exactlly the same looking sickle. That is less than a can of Coke. Looking for a remote for your 10 year old TV set? You will find it here. You see the Milnerton Fleamarket sells stuff that people don't want anymore to people who is looking for something that they cannot find anywhere else. If you want a bargain or you are still looking for that missing door handle from the cupboard your grandma gave you 20 years ago then try the Milnerton Fleamarket, I am sure you will find it there. Otherwise you will at least find me there...