Sandblasted Thoughts

Our last day of riding. Wow. I can hardly believe I’m saying that. It was for Namaganda Scovia and it was a short one – only 35 kilometres.

John woke up with a sore stomach but he was able ride it out. I even thought to myself, “He’ll be fine once he starts riding. He’s always good when he’s riding.” And he was. Vincent and Luke met us on a motorcycle and leapfrogged us all the way from Mityana to Kasanda. He took photos and video of us riding during various parts of the ride. It was so good to see Vincent again and he just kept shaking his head in disbelief that we had travelled 2200 kilometres around the country on bicycles in 30 days of riding. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face, except when he tried to lift John’s bike. “It’s so heavy!” he kept repeating. John told him it was because of all my beauty products. In truth, my beauty products consist of a tiny tube of deodorant lotion, a few hair bands, and a razor. I haven’t washed my hair once (don’t judge – I try to rinse it well on most days), and I caved and bought toenail polish today because mine is so bad and I have to wear sandals. They didn’t have my choice of colour so I let the teenage worker at the shop choose a colour for me. So now I will have purple toenails, a first for me.

I have embraced the abnormal and you can see the toll it’s taken on my body: biking in Uganda is a great weight-loss program. One tends to edit her approach to life while on a long ride like this. It’s like sandblasting your thoughts. I hope that life becomes simpler after this ride, not more complicated.

The ride today was the shortest of the trip, and it felt great. It flew by. Riding into Kasanda was surreal. There was a boda boda driver who was in front of us, honking his horn like we were in some kind of parade. We followed him to the hotel and there was about seventy-five school children (a few of our Get Schooled students scattered among them) and their teachers lined up on both sides of the gravel highway cheering us as we rode in. As soon as I saw them, my heart swelled and I burst into tears. We rode through them as they cheered and then turned around and rode through again to give high-fives all down the line. They were so kind and sweet and I felt like I was in an ocean of awesome when we all shared a group hug. All the pain, sweat and tears of the journey were entirely forgotten in a moment. And I am so proud of John and so very thankful for him. He sacrificed so much to get me here, keep me safe and make sure I was successful. And it was never lost on me how hard he had to fight to get back to the place where he could do this after his accident. I am blessed to have such a humble, courageous, forgiving, strong, wise and adventurous man in my life. I can’t even tell you.

The ride was too short to sort through all the emotions I’m feeling and I know that will take time. Stay tuned to our blog this week as we continue to sort through the emotional journey now that that the physical one is done and share our final celebration with you. I’ve told many friends that I fully expect to be a bit depressed when I come home. That feeling of emptiness from yesterday can’t be shaken off so easily. But today I felt as if I was being pushed from behind (which I literally was at one point when three schoolgirls pushed me up a small hill). I had flashbacks of training on my fatbike in the snow when I couldn’t feel my hands and feet and this day felt so far away. I reminisced about certain songs on my “Uganda 2019” playlist that fed my hope of completing this accomplishment and helped me embrace who I was made to be. I remembered getting the call about John’s accident as I watched him push the pedals up a hill in front of me, wondering about his grit and determination. I thought of my kids and the strength I get from watching them flourish as adults and rested in the knowledge that this mama has made them proud. I was reminded of an email I got from a dear friend right before we started that said when things feel difficult on this trip, it’s only because I am “carrying the weight of all the people who love me” and “the burden of 54 children whose lives might be changed.” I have thought about her words so often at various times of this journey and it has kept the pedals moving. And today? It felt like all the weight was dropped, the burden laid down and the dream accomplished. Thank you for doing your part to make that happen. I am so grateful for each of you, for the encouragement you’ve given and your belief in us.

It Takes a Village

What a night last night. We traded bedbugs for late-night revellers who partied just outside our window until 1 am. So we didn’t get much sleep for the second night in a row. They knocked on our door before we were up this morning to take our order for breakfast. We weren’t ready to eat yet, but when I did finally agree that some scrambled eggs and coffee would be really nice, she said it would be ready in thirty minutes. An hour and a half later, we gobbled down our cold eggs and scalded our throats to get down the overly hot coffee before Luke’s expected arrival just after 10. He arrived with our friend from Kasanda named Jakob who was the man who drove Vincent to pick us up from the airport way back in June. We hadn’t seen him for over a month so it was a happy reunion. He is hilarious, animated, loud, big and humble. He’s the kind of guy you like to have with you wherever you go because he exudes joy and laughs easily. He is the two-time Ugandan national heavy weight boxing champion and used to be a lorry driver. He can fix anything and I just feel safer when he’s around. It was strange to be in a car for the first time in two months. It seemed WAY too fast and as we drove along the rutted dirt roads, I found myself “picking my line,” watching for glass, and holding my breath when a truck went by to avoid breathing in the dust. It seems that being on these roads on a bike for nearly two months has formed some habits.

Luke (the reporter if you’ve missed previous blogs) had a few places he wanted us to visit and a few people he wanted us to meet. We first visited a school where his uncle is the director and visited a couple of classes. The class-sizes were HUGE with only one teacher and as an educator in Canada where the union fights for reasonable class-size, I was saddened and felt for the teacher. The learning strategy was very much rote memory as evidenced by their songs and reaction to seeing us when they say a greeting in unison that I’m not sure they even understand. The students were very well-behaved and Luke said it’s because it’s a private school where students pay even more than our Get Schooled kids. The teachers are better educated and the classrooms are more organized.

After visiting the school we went to the Ttanda Archeological site. The main tribe in the area is the Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda. They believe that suffering and death began at the exact spot we visited. It boasts of having the deepest holes in the world that they explain with legends and myths about two gods who were fighting each other and they dug the holes as a strategy to evade and sneak up on each other. I have no idea how those holes actually formed geologically and neither do they, but they were deep!! So the site is now a sacred shrine to various gods and people pay to go there to worship and pray to various gods including those of art, sports, music, thunder, electricity, etc. We even had to take off our shoes to enter, but when Luke argued that he didn’t want to get his socks dirty, they gave him a pair of “ancient” shoes to wear that looked strangely like every other pair of sandals we have seen people wearing. Because the two gods who dug the holes were warriors, people leave spears there as a sacrifice. They will also pray for healing and leave their crutches behind as proof they were healed. We had some good discussion with Luke and Jacob about how the Ugandans take their traditional beliefs and try to respect them while still holding true to their Christian or Catholic beliefs. They said it was very difficult for some and something that is a constant struggle.

After that, he took us to see a very large tree that is traditionally known for “swallowing up” two people that just got married. People used to go there to worship as well, but we weren’t clear who was being worshipped or why. But the Catholic church bought the land it’s on and wouldn’t allow the worshippers to come anymore. To make their point, they put up a picture of Mary encased in a wooden box. Once again, there is that never-ending contrast within Uganda. You have the old and new, the religious and the traditional, the rich and the poor, the pain and the beauty. There was also a box of condoms nailed to the backside of this ancient looking tree. But Luke said he wouldn’t trust them because they might have been in the sunshine or rain. He rolled his eyes at the idea of anyone actually using them, but not at the idea of a box of condoms being nailed to a sacred tree on a village corner.

We had an older man wearing a puffy coat climb into the van with us to direct us to the next site – a place to which a stone had mysteriously rolled from the tree we were currently at, about two kilometres away over night. It was and is still believed that whoever tries to take firewood from the forest where it now rests would fail. Their fires wouldn’t light, the food would burn, etc. So now the forest around the rock is left alone. There we found a group of people still worshipping who shave their heads and again, charge money to go in to see the rock. A woman named Gladys scrawled her phone number on a piece of cardboard, shoved it into my hand and asked me to take her baby to Canada. She actually handed me her baby. I declined, of course, with nervous laughter and said the baby needed its mom. Kinda awkward so we left without walking into their spiritual space, refusing to pay their admission.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a lovely lunch made by Luke’s wife, Jessica, of matoke, beans, rice, greens, spaghetti, beef and juice. He told us the story of Robert, the quiet teen who walked past the table a few times without stopping to eat. Luke had found him distressed by the side of the road a few months ago. A job that he was promised had fallen through and he didn’t have anywhere to go. His parents’ situation wouldn’t have been any better than staying in the street. So Luke allows Robert to stay with him and his family and found him a job in another district. Robert stays off and on with Luke when he has any time off. Luke seems very civic-minded, cares a lot about his community and is a living example of the African proverb (not Hillary Clinton) that “it takes a village to raise a child”. At one point, we saw some kids walking home from school gnawing on sugar cane. Luke told Jakob to stop the van and he hopped out, talking to the kids about how it’s very bad manners to be walking and eating in your school uniform. They all knelt down to show respect and they apologized. Everywhere we went, if he saw kids that should have been in school, he asked them why they were not. They always had an excuse, but Luke says their answers sounded less like truth and more like something they had been taught to say if anyone asked them about school.

We finished our day together taking various back roads to find a good spot to see Lake Wamala, a fresh water lake which was part of Lake Victoria but has receded into its own banks over the last 4000 years (according to Wikipedia). There were fishermen and lots of wooden boats scattered on the shoreline. Unfortunately, it’s too muddy to really be a tourist attraction where we were, but you could see they were trying to develop certain areas to make the lake more accessible to tourists and locals to enjoy the birds and the cool breezes. The map below shows our vantage point.

It’s hard to believe that our last day of riding is tomorrow. I have mixed emotions as you would expect: Pride. Sadness. Relief. Gratitude. Expectation. And a nagging sense of Emptiness. I’ll have about 50 kilometres during which to sort all that out and I plan to greet every person I can, take in every scene, feel every bump, relish every sip of water and I even found a Snickers in town today to devour at my discretion during the ride. It’s going to be a good day.

Running On Empty

Today’s 75-kilometre ride with 3000 feet of climbing was for Kyagulanyi David and Achan Miriam.

Only one more kiddo to ride for on a 30-mile day on Friday. We are staying in Mityana again tomorrow because it’s the reporter’s hometown and he wants to show us around and ask more questions.

We had about as much sleep last night as you would expect based on yesterday’s blog. We crawled into our tent that we had set up in the room around 7 PM and they came knocking on the door at 7:30 to make sure we had power because all of our lights were off and they had just turned on the generator. (side-note: there was still only one bulb in the whole unit). They were also hoping to sell us dinner but having seen their facilities, we simply said we were too tired and going to bed early. In truth, we had the lights off because we didn’t want to attract the mosquitoes and we didn’t really want to see what else might be crawling around. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Then they came back and knocked at the door at 9:30 pm to see if we were going to the campfire. I reminded them that we were going to bed early and we would see them in the morning. When we both got up to use the bathroom one last time, we were jokingly screaming about the bugs as we hurled ourselves back into the tent and zipped it up as quickly as possible. Joel (the tour guide-handyman-cook-security guard-cleaner-crocodile feeder) was immediately outside the door calling, “Don’t worry, Mr. John! I’m right here!!”

Actually, now I am worried – is he spending the whole night sitting right outside our door? It almost seemed like it as he knocked on the door again this morning just before 7, asking for “Mr. John.” I told him he was still asleep and he said, “OK just leave him.” John wasn’t asleep and had only dozed off occasionally throughout the whole night. I have no idea why Joel so urgently wanted to see him, but we packed up everything inside the room and left as soon as we could. We didn’t even want to stay long enough to make our own oatmeal or coffee. Unfortunately, our quick exit was delayed because I had misplaced the Garmin InReach, our most expensive piece of gear – a satellite device that tracks our progress and has SOS potential. It has been my responsibility this entire time and I kinda freaked out a little (a lot) thinking I had lost it. Joel, of course, offered to help look. I retraced my steps to the lake while John looked through our bags. Joel dishonestly told John that I told him I would give him money if he found it. I had said nothing of the sort and was annoyed that he had lied about that. I still gave him a small tip because I felt bad that he obviously had a hard life and had made such an effort to connect.

In actuality, the poor service at the croc farm is rare and demonstrates again the value of education. We stopped for breakfast after twelve kilometres and ordered some “fluffy pancakes.” The first batch was undercooked and still raw in the middle but they looked so good. I eventually told the waitress after trying to eat one and when I showed her, she felt bad and I tried to tell her it was no big deal. But she took the pancakes back and they made us two new plates of pancakes and then didn’t charge us for the meal. The manager even came out and apologized for our experience, but I assured him that my pancakes turn out that way almost every time. Throughout Uganda we have found that those people that are able to attend hotel management classes in high school or college really focus on the quality of their service and take their employment very seriously. You can quickly tell who has had an education and been taught how to work with people.

It ended up being a rather hard day of riding for some reason. The miles weren’t crazy but the climbing, no dinner last night, the heat, poor sleep, being back on rutted gravel and navigation challenges made the day feel extra long and hard. It’s like my body knew exactly how much it needed in the tank to complete this journey and now I’m running on fumes and hoping I don’t run outta gas on the last day. John did a great job getting us here to Mityana and is as strong as ever, frequently having to wait for me today.

Our room tonight is the only one in the hotel that has hot water. We had to choose between hot water and having a TV. No contest. We had a wasp nest in our room but once I told them about it, they quickly gathered the troops and figured out how to get rid of them – which amounted to getting us out of the room while the boy staff made the girl staff squish the nest with a holey rag. I’ve been afraid of “African killer bees” since I was little and learned about them in some kind of summer nature camp. So I’m happy that they got rid of them. I stuffed a towel under the door to the outside because that is how they were coming in. Mission accomplished. When John saw the kitchen where meals were prepared (see picture below) he was a little hesitant, but it does tend to be the industry standard, so we ordered chicken with rice and fries and it really hit the spot.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I have no idea what’s around that Luke wants to show us or the ‘local favourite’ food that he wants to share with us. Remember, Luke, that we are delicate. He gave us some questions to think about so we’ll take some notes so it’s not so awkward this time. That is, unless he pulls out the video camera.

Crossing the Line

We apologize for not posting this yesterday, but we were in a more remote area and our wifi router wouldn’t grab a signal.

Today’s 65-kilometre ride was for Naginda Sylvia and Kirumira Augustine. There are only two days of riding left which is hard for me to fathom.

Rain. wind. crocodiles. sun. cats. equator. dirt. traffic. interview. roadkill. spiders. kids. bedbugs. fishermen. That’s the gist of today.

We enjoyed our last interaction with Dennis at breakfast and left around 8:30 to make the meeting with Luke, the reporter, at noon. We rode the main highway between Masaka and Kampala so traffic was steady, but still felt safer than riding on the North Shore at home. Today the road was lined with fishermen, selling both fresh and dried tilapia, for miles. We rode right into a rainstorm and the rain was mixed with sand, snot, spray and a few tears on my face and bikegloves as we fought a headwind. It was a miserable moment. Suck it up! I couldn’t draft behind John because the kick up of gravel and spray into my face was just too much. But we crested the hill, saw the sign for the equator and my energy was renewed.

We met with Luke as planned after he startled us from behind, riding a motorcycle and filming us. We then sat down with a Coke and he told us a little bit about his business. He’s part of an organization that owns three newspapers and two broadcasting stations, but he’s thinking of retiring from that business in a couple of years to start a vocational school instead. We answered some very general questions about how things have gone so far and what we thought of Uganda. He took some notes but then took out his old video camera and proceeded to ask us exactly the same questions but with the camera right in our faces. It was very strange and made me really uncomfortable and forget a lot of what I wanted to say. He took some more video of us riding, but the camera was swinging all over the place as he balanced himself of the back of a boda so I’m not sure how it will turn out. We took some photos at the equator which had an awesome marker that I was happy to not miss this time. So that was the first line we crossed today.

The second line we crossed today was the one that goes over our comfort zone. We booked a room at the Buwama Crocodile Farm, being lead to believe it was a reptile refuge and somewhat of a tourist attraction. What it is in actuality is a place where old crocodiles come to die and baby crocs are sold to locals for food and to South Koreans to make handbags and shoes. Romeo and Juliet, the 60-year-old pair, have been bred to keep the business running. And Benjamin, an 80-year-old man-eating croc from the Nile has been brought here to live out the last of his possible 20 years. Apparently, he’s known for eating 60 people.

After lunch (which I’m so thankful we had before getting here!!!) we rode about twelve kilometres out of the way to get here and it’s been the first place that made me want to get back on the bike and ride further. Their focus is obviously more on the crocodile harvesting and less on accommodations. Based on the price, we thought we knew what we were getting because it was higher than some other places we’ve stayed so we thought it would be decent. There is no electricity, no running water, spiders, a disheveled ‘restaurant’ with spiderwebs everywhere, an actual bulb-less lamp on the floor of the bathroom for the light, and the worst part – bedbugs. Oh, and the floor actually moves from all the tiny ants crawling around. I showed Naomi (the worker) the bedbugs and she laughed, saying, “Oh, those aren’t bedbugs. Those are just insects crawling around.” Yeah. IN THE BED! It was too late to find anything else (without being sure anything else even existed that we could pedal to before dark) so we are pulling out the tent tonight and pitching it in the room itself. It’s gonna be a long night. To be honest, this is actually kinda what we expected to have to do for the entire trip so now we are 100% more grateful that it wasn’t like this from the start. I would’ve faked an injury to avoid living like this and my standards have never been five-star hotels. But hey, I told too many people that I wanted to “embrace all that Uganda had to offer.” I guess that would have to include bedbugs and ants and no running water. I’m just thankful I have an option to not embrace them literally, as John has been lugging our tent around this entire country still unused. I asked John if he would have carried the tent this entire time knowing that we would only need it for this night. He laughed and without hesitation said, “Absolutely!”

The setting outside is quite beautiful though. It’s right on Lake Victoria so there is a nice breeze and there are hundreds of birds feeding in the grass and making their different calls. There are cows grazing, fishermen out on a little peninsula, and laughing children sliding down a hill on banana leaves. That’s the thing I have learned about this place. For as hard as it is, there is stunning beauty all around if you just open your eyes. But John did just say, “I kinda just want this day to go away.” It’s only 4 pm.

Today we are reminded that suffering together builds a bond. And cycling can bring you to special places physically and emotionally… even if the bugs come along with.

Back to School With a Smile

Today’s dusty but beautiful 75-kilometre ride was for Nanyonga Edith and Nanziri Viola. We have five kids left to ride for and then all fifty-four will have been represented. I hope you have had a chance to check out many of their stories on our website.

We were so happy to wake up to relatively clear skies this morning. We had our last breakfast on our island rest stop, said goodbye to James and starting riding around 8. We stopped at a store/bank to get some money and there was no one around inside. A few other teenagers gathered inside the store as well that sold radios, TVs and other electronics. We waited for about ten minutes, and while we were confused, everyone else just patiently waited when a guy finally rolled up on a motorcycle. It was his store, but who knows where he was or why he opened shop before he could be there. What we were really struck by though was that no one was looking to steal anything. They just all waited for the owner to return.

The actual riding has gotten easier over time, although I can tell that the repetitive nature of pedalling is breaking down my body slightly. I’m looking forward to mixing things up by hiking and paddle-boarding when we get home. The bike though, has become a wonderful tool to bring us to the next lovely soul, heartbreaking story and unique daily experiences.

We pushed hard to get to the ferry, but thought we had just missed it. We had been passed by the oncoming cars that had just come across the lake and still had about a half an hour of riding to go to the landing site. Well, our timing was perfect. We rolled up, brought in our passports to register on the manifest and the horn sounded for loading. On the ferry we noticed a teenage boy who slowly edged closer and closer to us as we stood next to our bikes on the deck. Finally, he must have mustered the courage or his curiosity just got the best of him so he started talking to John. We chatted with him for the length of the journey. Emmanuel, a high school student, had to go back to Kalangala town on the island to get his school fees before he was allowed to return to school on the mainland. His mom and dad are fishermen and he has to wait until they catch enough fish to sell to make his school fees. He says it takes a long time sometimes, but he was excited to return to school now after a month of work with his father. He was very happy to be getting back in time to complete his final exams and see his friends. He was very interested in hearing about Canada, especially the climate. He got my email address before we parted company, us on our bikes and he crammed into the back of an overloaded car.

We are back in Masaka, but staying somewhere different this time as our last place was in a pretty sketchy part of town and above a pretty popular bar. We rolled in with the familiar relief that comes with seeing the name of the hotel we’ve been looking for and I went in to register. The room they showed me looked just fine, but at the time I failed to notice that they were still building an additional floor on top and all of the construction that was going on in the building. They were literally working on every single room around us for hours, hammering, sawing, sweeping dirt off the roof that fell onto my clothes I had hung out to dry. It was a loud operation with lots of commotion as they were trying to get a huge water tank lifted up three stories to the roof. There were multiple men on the roof with ropes that cascaded down to the tank that they attached to a stick that they put inside. There were a couple of guys on the middle floor with long skinny logs that they used to push the tank away from the building so that it could get pulled up and over the rooftop’s three-foot lip of cement. Keep in mind that as they hung over the roof, there were no safety harnesses or precautions. The boss was yelling directions from the ground as the men lifted and struggled and yelled at each other while the housekeepers all laughed at them and joked from the ground. Everyone cheered when they pulled it up and over the lip, the ending to what was, no doubt, a long work day. Although it was loud and a little annoying, I was impressed with their problem solving skills and ingenuity. Plus, meeting Dennis has made it worth it.

I could see immediately that Dennis had grabbed John’s heart when I saw his face after I came out from registering. John usually uses the time that I’m getting the nigh’s room to strike up conversations with the workers who are curious about us and come to check out our bikes. I could hear it in his voice that he thought this boy was special. Dennis is an 18-year-old who is in his last year of secondary school, studying hotel management. He works and studies intermittently because he is sometimes forced to take long breaks in his studies to make money for school fees, sometimes as long as a year. He feels guilty about depending solely on his mom’s hard work for school fees so he does what he can, when he can, to help. He makes only $26 a month for working eleven-hour days and he is very good at his job from what we saw. He cried when he spoke of his mom who has trouble making money enough for him and his siblings to attend school. His father left them and “doesn’t care about them” but he says he still loves him because he is still his father and he wouldn’t be here without him. Dennis is bright, animated, hilarious, hard-working, and loves to talk. He was so authentic and vulnerable that we were deeply touched by him. He was shy when he told us about a new girlfriend and tried to hide his tears when he spoke of his parents. He couldn’t believe how old we were and acted out what a regular 50-year-old lady in Uganda looks like – bent over and hobbling with one hand on her back. He said John looked 35. You can see why we liked him so much. He said, laying his hand on his heart, “My troubles are African troubles, but I have hope and I am so happy.” He had a soccer game this evening. He plays as a striker and promised to score a goal for both of us and then proceeded to show us the victory dance he will use when he scores.

I cried a little when he left. Let me tell you his, education is the number one thing these kids desire and the number one thing their parents work so hard to provide. I am so encouraged to confirm our purpose here and with our project. Paying for a child to attend school, who has no other means to achieve that dream despite the tireless work and sacrifice of the entire family (if they even have one), is a sacred act. I am convinced. There is no better gift.