Dark city, bright city

I came to Santiago (Chile) packing a 2017 New York Times article entitled “36 Hours in Santiago.” Steve and I actually had more than 50 hours in the Chilean capital, so I never intended to follow the Times itinerary to the letter. Still I like the 36- (or often 48- or 72-hours) in Wherever format; it suggests sightseeing highlights and often gives me ideas for where to eat. I borrowed the format last fall when I blogged about our 31 hours in Seoul, a stopover during which I concluded that Seoul deserves to be included on any list of the great cities on the planet. Fifty hours in Chile’s biggest city made me think Santiago doesn’t. But it also reminded me that any attempt to make snap judgments about a brief stop anywhere is fraught with peril.

Our first 24 hours in Santiago started off uncomfortably and then went downhill. I felt elated when our Avianca flight from Mexico City arrived about 8:20 pm Sunday — a bit early. But then we had to spend 40 minutes in line to get a simple entry stamp in our passports. We felt happy again to find our bags (which we checked, due to their weight) waiting for us on a moving carousel. After collecting them, we made our way through a gauntlet of some of the most aggressive taxi drivers I’ve confronted anywhere. I had studied up on the best way to take an Uber from the airport into the city, a move reported to be difficult because the taxi drivers hate the Uberfolk so much they sometimes physically attack them. I’d found (and photocopied) one detailed blog post that counseled going to the short-term parking lot next to the Holiday Inn across the street from the airport. Uber drivers could pick up passengers there without being harassed, this writer reported. But when Steve and I tried to follow his directions, we failed epically. The driver we were connected with texted us (in Spanish) that he could not get into that parking lot. He suggested meeting us elsewhere, but we couldn’t figure out where he was talking about. Finally, 20 minutes later, exhausted and irritated, we gave up and instead paid for a pre-paid taxi that turned out to be fast and efficient (if $10 more expensive than an Uber ride probably would have been.)

Our Airbnb apartment was fine, but by the time we reached it (around 10:30 pm), we were starving. (My advice: do not ever count on Avianca to feed you over the course of a long day.) Happily, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant across the street was still open, and we gobbled down some excellent seafood and Pisco sours before climbing into bed.

The doorbell buzzing at 6 am Monday morning surprised us awake. It was our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, arriving two hours earlier than we expected them, and with a friend in tow whose hotel wasn’t accessible until 2 pm. They all collapsed with exhaustion, and Steve and I took to the street to do some exploring.

It was barely 40 degrees, the sky a dismal steely gray, rain clearly on the way. Looking for a coffee shop, we passed countless giant apartment buildings, most of them ranging in style from plain to ugly. Graffiti covered a lot of the facades, some of it muralistic but much simple tagging.

The Malpocho riverbed is a bit lacking in charm too.

On one corner a small knot of riot police appeared to be massing (though we saw nothing remotely riotous looking in the surrounding area.) We passed a number of dogs being walked, and I was charmed by how many were dressed, either in winter coats or raincoats. Still they didn’t look much happier than many of the people.

My spirits bounced up later, when we had collected Michael and Stephanie and Devin and headed to the historic heart of the city for a Chilean staple known as the “completo” — a hot dog laden with any of a host of toppings.

I chose the Italiano, so named for its colors.

After lunch we strolled around the huge central plaza, popping into the cathedral and central post office. It started drizzling, but we plowed on, visiting the central market and a old train station that’s been converted to a social center. By then the cold rain was strengthening; the sky darker. By the time we reached the central library, a vast structure that reminded me of New York City’s, I was too cold and tired to want to go in (though Steve, Mike, and Stephanie soldiered on). Once back in the apartment, I took some pleasure in my phone’s report that I had covered 8.8 miles and climbed 20 floors.

Saturday morning, Santiago felt like a different city. The rain was gone, and patches of sunny blue sky flirted with light clouds. It took us a while to get organized, but by late morning, the five of us had walked to the foot of Cerro San Cristobal, a spur of the Andes that’s one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. An ancient funicular carries passengers up to the top, near the site of a tower Virgin Mary. She looks quite strikingbut even more dazzling were the line of snow-laden nearby Andes that she overlooks.

The sight of them energized all of us. After a nearby lunch, we covered a lot more ground, walking to a huge central food market……a striking arts complex… and more. We also had a fantastic meal that night (almost 30 separates tastes showcasing the ancestral foods of Chile).

The day made me feel we could easily have enjoyed at least a few more days in Santiago. But we wanted at least a glimpse of the vast Chilean wine country. We’re in the midst of it now. Outside my Santa Cruz hotel window, the sky looks awfully threatening. At least we have a rental car to (mostly) get us around.

Waking up in CDMX

Mexico City impressed me when I first went there, around the end of 1978. It was the first non-European capital I’d ever visited, and it felt exotic. It was the Third World, as we called developing nations back then. On our taxi ride from the airport to our Zona Rosa hotel, I remember eyeing shanties; smelling burning garbage. That visit also exposed me to world-class marvels: the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the city’s huge central plaza, its marvelous anthropology museum, Chapultepec Park. We hung out mostly in the chic neighborhoods, and I recall concluding that the city seemed a wild mixture of Paris and Tijuana.

I liked it a lot, and Steve and I returned several times over the next few years, but the worst things about Mexico City — its choking air pollution and awful traffic — loomed larger and larger over time. Returning from Oaxaca in 1984, we passed through briefly but then didn’t go back for almost 35 years.

Seeing Mexico City again over the last two days made me feel like I had napped and awakened in a world that was familiar but also different in startling ways. Driving from the airport into town I noticed nothing like those old-school Latin American slums. (They must still exist, but in less obvious areas.) We smelled no burning garbage. When we rode the metro, the cars were packed and humid but cleaner and less odiferous than some crowded American subways I’ve endured.

Even the name has changed. Traditionally known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply DF, the city three years ago became more jurisdictionally independent, at the same time getting rechristened as La Ciudad de Mexico. CDMX (part acronym, part brand?) is now emblazoned on everything from buses to garbage cans (three classes for trash, organic, and recyclables). The moniker made me think of a computer operating system; made the urban center it represents seem somehow jazzier. Indeed everyone has cell phones; Bird scooters and Uber drivers are ubiquitous. Over and over I was struck by how comfortable I was; how much Mexico City now feels like home, if more brightly painted and stylish than San Diego.

Because of our previous visits here, we had told ourselves we need not be frenetic about sightseeing, but in the end we couldn’t resist slipping into our old hyperactive ways. We covered almost 9 miles on foot Friday; more than 10 yesterday. We walked from our Airbnb apartment in the elegant old Condesa neighborhood to visit a new museum downtown dedicated to pulque (the mildly alcoholic ancient Mexican drink of the masses that has gotten trendy in recent years.) The museum proved underwhelming, but admission included tastes, so I can now report that both peanut- and red-wine-flavored pulque are delicious.

Other flavor choices included cheese, honey, pineapple, pine nut, and more.

We spent time in two different art museums, one filled with the staggeringly huge collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

A crucified Christ made from an elephant tusk (or maybe several?) is just one of the 66,000 art objects on display.

Adjoining the Slim’s Museo Soumaya, the newish Museo Jumex, dedicated to contemporary art, was hosting a brainy exhibition focusing on the work of artists Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons. Besides us, it drew a throng of Mexicans of all ages.

Koons’ gigantic Play-doh pile (made of interlocking aluminum pieces rather than actual Play-doh) amazed me with its beauty and complex craftsmanship.

During our two days, we ate several meals at red-hot restaurants where we only lucked into tables because we arrived so much earlier than the locals.

We didn’t eat any street snacks, though they have to rank among the most colorful in the world.

What excited us more than anything was our experience in the city’s historic center. We decided to run down there on the spur of the moment, catching a metro from the Chapultepec station (5 minutes from our apartment) to the Zócalo. When I’d first seen it more than 40 years ago, that plaza blew my mind with its vastness. On Saturday afternoon, it seemed to have shrunk (probably in comparison with some of the other vast plazas I’ve tramped through over the years). Mexico City’s zocalo once was the site of a great pyramid in the heart of the Aztecs’ capital, Teotihuacan. But the Spanish conquistadors had torn the pyramid down and used the stones to create the plaza and cathedral and the other grand buildings that still surround it today.

The Spaniards’ willingness, even insouciance, about obliterating every trace of another civilization horrified Steve and me on our first visit. Back then we were intrigued by news of a recent discovery by some electricians working on metro construction. They had found a huge disk honoring the Aztec moon goddess that suggested part of the original temple might still exist, buried under the city that developed over it. Work on investigatory excavation had started, but it looked pretty puny. Still, it held promise.

My biggest Rip Van Winkle moment was seeing what has happened since. The Templo Mayor complex, as it’s now known, today covers a huge area behind the Cathedral.The biggest outer pyramid, which honored the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, is gone. But you can clearly see the remains of what it once sheltered: about a dozen levels of construction dating from 1375 to 1519. You can stare at the double staircase where the bodies of human sacrificial victims were thrown down the steps after their hearts were ripped out. An impressive museum fills in a lot of the details, gory and otherwise. The power and scale of what once filled this space are unmistakable. It made me happy to see two of the main cultures that shaped this country co-existing more equitably.

The Zócalo metro station has a nice model of what once filled the area.

I should add a brief mention of the biggest disappointment of this visit. According to our iPhone weather apps, the air quality was still “Unhealthy” (in the 150-200 range — compared to the 20-50 that’s more the norm in San Diego). It wasn’t as stratospherically bad as the air in India last fall. It didn’t seem as bad as the air I remember from my early forays here, but that’s probably because summer is the rainy season, which washes out some of the pollution (and we used to visit in the wintertime). I wish I could return in another 35 years. Even sooner. It seems possible more good changes may be evident.

But I’m posting this now from our Airbnb in Santiago, where we arrived last night. We’ll have about 6 days in Chile, and throughout that time we’ll be filling a blank slate.

An auspicious beginning

Steve and I finally got to use the new(ish) cross-border footbridge that enables pedestrians to walk from San Diego (Otay Mesa) to Tijuana’s international airport, and what a pleasure that was. The last time we flew out of TJ was decades ago, and I’m sure we did it because the fares on Aeromexico were cheaper. I remember the whole experience as nightmarish. First you had to drive to the border and cross it, then grind on for what felt like ages through bad slums and poorly designed roads. The terminal itself was dingy and jammed with endless lines of travelers schlepping gigantic suitcases and other paraphernalia. Steve remembers seeing ripe, discarded baby diapers and other trash strewn on the terminal floor.

What we saw on this departure was almost unimaginably different — spotless marble floors, good lighting, comfy waiting areas, tempting food choices. Best of all was getting to the Tijuana terminal. Our friend Alberto gave us a lift from our house to the clean modern building on the US side of the border (quite close to where Trump’s big, beautiful, wall prototypes were erected.) It took us just minutes to buy our one-way tickets ($20 per person) to walk across the bridge and obtain our Mexican visas (from a high-tech kiosk). We scanned the bridge ticket and our boarding pass at a gate that opened for us automatically. Then we strolled over and above that pesky border between the two countries. The passage couldn’t have taken even five minutes.

In the photo above, you see the actual bridge. It looks like any corridor in any modern airport. Through the window in it, we could glimpse that bothersome wall.

Emerging into the Mexican facility, we joined a line that briskly moved through immigration and customs to emerge in the spiffy terminal, steps away from the VIP Lounge. We could use it because we get free Priority Passes with our Chase Sapphire credit cards.

It was a pleasant place to wait for the hour before we boarded.

When I was shopping for flights to Mexico City, I was startled to learn that NONE depart from San Diego. Now I understand why. The carriers out of Tijuana compete ferociously. (We paid just $67 per person for the three-hour-plus flight, and I have friends who’ve snagged $70 round-trip bargains occasionally.) Even adding on the bridge-crossing fee, it feels like a great deal. Being able to saunter across the border as we did, one could almost glimpse a different, brighter future.

If only the rest of our transits on this trip are as smooth and stress-free….

What it’s like to go to Burning Man

DSC02682I’ve long been curious about Burning Man, the anarchic arts festival that has taken place for decades during the week before Labor Day in the harsh northern Nevada desert. At one point, Steve and I thought maybe the time was right for us to check it out. This was about 5 years after our older son moved to Reno (located about 100 miles southwest of the event). Alas by then its popularity had exploded. In 2010 more than 50,000 people attended Burning Man; in 2011 for the first time ever, tickets sold out about a month before the festivities started. In an attempt to curb the madness, the organizers created a complicated ticket lottery for the 2012 festival — the very year we targeted to attend. To our chagrin, we could only secure one ticket, so we gave up and resold it.

After that, the organizers abandoned the lottery system, but Steve and I were busy with other projects. Ironically, our younger son, Elliot, in the fall of 2017, independently happened to participate in a regional Burning Man event (YOUtopia) held on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. It engaged him so much he subsequently became involved with the local (San Diego) “burner” community (which has both formal and informal meetups throughout the year). Los Angeles also is home to a similar community, which organizes a 3- to 4-day campout called BEquinox. Elliot made plans to attend BEquinox this year with a friend, but then the friend couldn’t make it, so he needed to unload the ticket. Steve and I looked at each other 11 days ago and had the same thought: if we could find a second available ticket, maybe we should seize the opportunity to go. Elliot encouraged us to join him.

Amazingly, in short order we got the extra ticket, rented an RV, found sitters for the puppy we’re currently raising for Canine Companions for Independence, rescheduled appointments we had made for the five days we would need to be away (Wednesday, March 20, through Sunday, the 24th). Elliot planned to ride up and back with us in our rented motor home but sleep in his own tent. Instead of taking place near Joshua Tree National Park, as it has in years past, this would unfold on land the LA burner community recently acquired in the Mojave Desert, not far from Edwards Air Force Base.

Our cozy RV

At the end of winter, that patch of California is far more congenial than Black Rock in Nevada (site of the main Burning Man event) in late August. But the nights would be near freezing, we knew, and although we’ve done our share of tent camping over the years, we’re not crazy about it. 

Now that we’re back, I can report that even with a nice RV, the environmental challenges were what I liked least about the experience. A rainstorm that preceded us had just blown out by the time we arrived about 4:30 pm last Wednesday. Every day after that was sunny, but fierce, dusty, bone-chilling winds whipped through the complex on most of Thursday and again on Saturday. After sunset the temperature plunged to the mid-30s. The BEquinox organizers had set up plenty of (very well-maintained) porta-potties to serve those of the 1500 attendees who lacked RVs, but that was the only utility provided. All attendees had to transport in all their own water and power and pack out every trace of refuse (“Leaving No Trace” on the natural environment is one of the ten sacred burner guiding principles). In our RV, Steve and I were so comfortable it was tempting at times to stay inside and cocoon. But each time we resisted that temptation, we were rewarded.

I still can’t report on what the big famous Burning Man is like, but after participating in a lite version, I can much better imagine it. Here are the three biggest insights I gained:

No one should attend Burning Man (or one of its regional offspring) unless the guiding principles appeal to them.

Steve and I enjoyed seeing how those principles animated this evanescent community. But someone who disliked the sound of any of them would be unlikely to enjoy the experience; might hate it. As expressed by the BEquinox literature, those principles are: 

Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of our community. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” I took this to mean participants do have to respect the core principles. I didn’t notice any Nazis in the crowd. But attendees ranged from toddlers to octagenarians, and they had a variety of skin colors and sexual orientations. 

Gifting. “Our community is devoted to acts of giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Over the three days and four nights, we were given many things, including jewelry, alcoholic drinks (bars offering free liquor are plentiful), a lesson in tie-dying, 5 minutes (each) to talk about anything we wanted. (Steve discussed his ongoing science-fiction project, and I talked about raising puppies to be service dogs. At this event we also heard discourses on mountain-climbing, desert tortoises, cosmology, parenting, city planning, how to write a novel in 3 days, and more.) Free food was ubiquitous (though we had brought our own meals.) We could have gotten ukelele lessons, made jewelry and puzzles and buttons, been massaged, gotten a fire-spinning lesson, played a giant game of Scrabble, and done more that we missed.  In turn, Steve and I gave away sweet, juicy, organically home-grown oranges. Folks seemed to appreciate them.

The board at the Scrabble Camp

Decommodification. “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising…” Steve and I have nothing against capitalism, but it was interesting to spend a few days in a community where nothing could be bought or sold. 

Radical Self-Reliance. “Our community encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” What’s not to like about that?

Radical Self-Expression. “Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” This is the one I imagine might be most difficult for some folks to swallow. If some members of the community are expressing themselves by playing loud music or taking psychedelic drugs or walking around topless or naked (a small minority of the crowd, but a definite part of the scene), that’s part of the ethos. Consent, “the cornerstone of a healthy community,” helps to buffer some of the potential friction, but it seemed clear that by participating at all, one was consenting to at least being exposed to unconventional behavior. 

Communal Effort. “Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that enable such interaction.” Seeing what this relatively small (less than 1500 people) and brief (three-day) community produced made me think the big Burning Man event must be staggering. Besides the huge wooden structure (the “effigy”) that was burned on Saturday night (top image), the BEquinoxers set up art works like this throughout the grounds.

Look inside the eye and you see the word “BEAUTY”
The “Xylovan” was another interactive art piece

They brought in wonderful “art cars” that roamed the dirt streets offering hop-on hop-off rides.DSC02611DSC02624DSC02599 DSC02597

Some vehicles were tall…

And some were small.
You could ride in this “bookmobile”
Either up top or in the back.
Many of the art cars lighted up at night

One group set up an “Awesome Town” library, complete with potentially offensive books that participants were encouraged to burn on Friday night (after the effigy burning and before a dance party).IMG_4624


Civic Responsibility. “We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”

Leaving No Trace. “Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”

Participation. “Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Immediacy. “Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value within our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.” 

A High Hippie sartorial aesthetic infuses the burner culture.

I never came close to being a hippie in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was too young and way too straight-laced and conservative then. I had been vaguely aware that the costumes worn at Burning Man events were offbeat, but I was startled by how… uniformly most participants participated. Giant velvet Mad Hatter top hats, kilts andDSC02688 tutus, neon fur shin warmers, glitter, tie-dye, and onesies are the norm. Dressed in our jeans and t-shirts, Steve and I stuck out. That seemed okay too; no one appeared judgmental. But it was strange to feel a bit freakish by not dressing freakishly.

Everyone I talked with was interesting and likable. This event was like being at a giant three-day cocktail party filled with smart and interesting people who were ready to engage in conversation — chitchat that often quickly turned deep. We met doctors and lawyers and space engineers and software entrepreneurs and movie location scouts and covered topics ranging from camping skills to relationships. Of course we only talked to a tiny fraction of the attendees; maybe some would have been obnoxious. We’d have to return to another Burning Man event some day to learn more. We’re at least talking about that.

The effigy under construction
No trace of it was left the morning after the burning. Even the nails were collected with magnets.






And we’re off!

We decided for for the first time ever to get from San Diego to LA via the combination of Amtrak train and shuttle bus (from Union Station to LAX). So why not go old school all the way? Instead of taking a Lyft to the train station, we walked from our house to the #30 city bus station and paid $1.10 each for the ride.

Amazingly, it worked like a charm. We arrived at the airport 35 minutes before we could even check in for our flight.

We’ll head to the boarding gate in a few minutes and see if Singapore Airlines can get us across the Pacific Ocean to Korea as smoothly

Ugandan depths

In planning and anticipating this trip, I had envisioned that our first two weeks (in Arabia) would be the fun part. In Uganda, I expected something more challenging and not always pleasant: two 8- to 10-hour driving days (between Kampala, the capital, and the remote western region where the granny project is located) sandwiched around three intense days of traveling over punishing dirt roads to get to hours of meetings in poor villages. But as we were packing Saturday night for our return trip home, I reflected with some surprise that the Ugandan part turned out to be the best.

As much as I love travel, I’m often struck by how superficial it can be. You blow through a city or a country in a day or two, and even if you’re paying close attention and asking tons of questions, you leave with only the slimmest understanding of how things work. Our sojourn in Uganda was an effort to go a bit deeper. We were returning to Nyaka, the village we visited four years ago as emissaries of Women’s Empowerment (WE) in San Diego. At that time, we were seeking to determine if the Nyaka AIDS Foundation’s granny project might be a good partner to receive some of the money WE raises for micro loans.

Steve and I fell in love with the Ugandan grannies the first time we were greeted by a group of them dancing to salute our arrival. These ladies range from 50 to 100 years old and face challenges we found almost unimaginable. Many have lost their husbands, yet all are raising grandchildren who’ve been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. They often look somber and stoic, but when they break into dance, they display astounding energy. Dancing transforms them; turns them exuberant, even joyous.

Four years ago, in talks with the Ugandans who run the project and visits with three granny groups, we also were impressed by their fledgling micro loan program. Upon our return to San Diego in June of 2013, the WE board approved a partnership; Steve and I since then have served as the liaisons between the Ugandans and the Americans. From informal emails and regular reports from the Ugandans, we’ve learned a bit more about them over the years. But we’ve also come to realize the many limits on our knowledge. If you’d asked me a month ago how a 75-year-old widow with no retirement income could not only survive but also raise young children, I would have had no idea.

Thanks to the time we spent in Kigezi, I glimpsed how at least a few of these ladies do it.

One afternoon, we visited the home of 64-year-old Paulina. She’s raising 4 grandchildren ranging in age from 7 to 14.

Paulina with Vian Owamani, the microloan coordinator


Her most recent loan was for 300,000 Ugandan shillings (about $82), and she used part of the money to buy two piglets, paying about $11 each for them. If she can keep them for about a year, until they weigh 45 to 55 pounds, she figures each should fetch somewhere between $55 and $70. Paulina also was using part of her loan to buy ripe coffee beans from neighbors. She dries the beans and sells them to a local coffee mill. Like most older women in rural Uganda, she doesn’t have to worry about paying for housing. She lives in a humble dwelling, with no electricity or water, but it’s been in her family for a long time. She also raises a variety of crops; it’s a way of life here. If the people are poor in this part of Uganda, the land is rich, enabling folks to grow corn, beans, peanuts, sweet and “Irish” potatoes, millet, cassava, rice, yams, vegetables, sorghum, tomatoes, and a head-spinning variety of bananas. Despite the hardships she’d endured, Paulina seemed hard-working and organized.
Fifty-six-year-old Jolly, also raising 4 grandkids, raised her hand to share her story with us but apologized for not standing. She suffers from a lot of back pain, she explained. Jolly was a pioneer — the first of the 7000 or so NAF grannies ever to be deemed by her group to be worthy of a one-million-shilling loan (a whopping $275). She got the money in January and used part of it to buy a foot-powered sewing machine. With the rest, she was renting a little storefront in the center of her town (Buyanja) — $22 a month for a 6-month term. Tailoring wasn’t something new for her. She had learned to do it more than 30 years ago, and at one time had owned 8 sewing machines and employed a crew of girls to make clothes that she sold in the market. But her husband had died in 1994, and she had had to sell all her machines to support her 5 children.

Although Buyanja had other tailors, Jolly had also created a tiny retail counter and a tea shop in the back of her space. A couple of customers were in it when we visited.

Jolly’s tailoring and tea shop. Phionah is the name of one of her daughers, who helps out. And people call all sorts of businesses “hotels.” Don’t ask me why.
Jolly showed us one of her recent creation.

Most of the granny loans are nowhere near the size of Jolly’s. Mauda, 72 and providing a home for three grandchildren, had recently borrowed 50,000 shillings (just under $14). She used the money to buy 2 hens, and she had allowed most of the eggs they laid to hatch. Now she has 12 hens, and besides looking forward to a handsome profit from selling some, she was also using their droppings to fertilize her garden. Although her loan was only a 20th the size of Jolly’s, she looked just as proud of what the money was helping her to achieve.

Over our three days upcountry, we met with 6 of NAF’s 98 granny groups, and sometimes it felt like we were hearing the same story, with minor variations, over and over: granny borrows $7. Or $27. Or $137. She uses it to buy a pair of rabbits. Or a goat. Or hens. Or she buys a bale of used clothing to resell at local markets. Or she rents a stall in the local market and sells vegetables in it. After four months, she repays the loan money (plus 14% to 20% in interest.) She feels extravagantly grateful, because that rate is so much lower than what she would pay to alternative lenders. Assuming she makes a profit (and most do), she usually directs it to paying what it costs to send a child to school. (Even the “public” ones in Uganda cost about $25 a year in fees, plus around $9 for a uniform and another $2-3 for books and supplies.)

Along with these common tales, I learned one thing after another that surprised me. One woman stood up and testified as to how grannies used to be despised in their villages, considered worthless because of their “boozing” and general lack of value. With the formation of her granny group, she and her comrades had acquired self-respect and hope; their status in the community had soared. Steve later asked one of the team members if this woman had been joking; the vision of drunken grannies seemed comic. But the NAF team members assured him she’d been serious; overwhelmed by the difficulty of their situation, the women often had succumbed to alcoholism and despair.

I was surprised every time the ring of a cell phone interrupted our discussions. Most grannies now have cheap ones that they use to communicate with family members.They also rely on battery-powered radios for daily announcements about deaths in the community — or word that a special granny group meeting was being called (to receive the likes of us, for example.)

I was surprised to hear how much the grannies worry about theft, even though in many ways, the rural communities are safe and honest places. When a small backpack belonging to our driver fell out of the van, unnoticed, a villager retrieved it, asked around for the phone number of one of the Nyaka team members, called, and carried the pack to us. But grannies also talked of having to defend against thugs who might steal their chickens, their crops, and their kitchen items. We asked if they used watchdogs. But dogs cost money to keep, and persistent thieves don’t shrink from poisoning them.
Not only the grannies told us things that astounded us. One day during lunch at a simple roadside joint, the topic of malaria came up. The Ugandans who work for the foundation are smart, well-educated, sophisticated. But every one of them was infected with malaria. Everyone is, they said. We pressed them, and they told us how they dealt with flare-ups. They shrugged it off, but it sounded a lot more painful than the common cold.

Ronald, our driver, was similarly matter of fact when we asked about his background. His father had been a doctor, but he had died when Ronald was 6 months old. Then his mother died a year and a half later. Rather than care for 2-year-old Ronald and his 8-year-old sister, the villagers treated them like pariahs (“ghosts” is the term Ronald used). If their parents had been cursed, the children were likely to be cursed also. So Ronald’s sister had somehow raised him. How does an 8-year-old do that? How did Ronald grow up, save money for driving school, and turn himself into the steady, sharp, and competent driver he is today?

On our final drive from Kampala to Entebbe to catch our flight Dubai Monday morning, gazing out the window of our taxi, I saw hundreds of reminders of how hard life is here: guys hawking packs of toilet paper to folks stuck in the hellish traffic, women carrying heavy loads of eggplants and other vegetables on their heads, a kid scrambling to drag in the furniture displayed on the lawn outside a shop before the rain got too heavy. So much more. But with all the evidence of struggle and suffering, there’s so much heroism — stories like Ronald’s of mind-boggling perseverance. You don’t have to dig very deep to find it.

Chimpanzees in the rain

The contrast between the sun-scorched Arabian peninsula — all grays, tans, and black — and lush central Uganda is stark. “It’s like another planet,” Steve murmured, looking out on our descent toward the riotous shades of green, fertile red earth, and red rooftops. One of the rainy seasons here in “the pearl of Africa” is March to June, and during that period, temperatures are mild. Although Entebbe is almost on the equator, its elevation is around 4000 feet. When we arrived Sunday afternoon it was in the mid-70s and the sun was shining through scattered clouds. So many birds were singing they made me think of noisy party-goers.

Steve and I rarely return to countries we’ve already visited. We’re curious about so many places we haven’t yet gotten to (India! Turkey! Mongolia!), it feels like there isn’t time to go back anywhere. Yet we’ve come back to Uganda because our mission here isn’t tourism but microfinance. When we were here four years ago, we visited a village in the southwestern part of the country to learn about a Ugandan project seeking to partner with Women’s Empowerment (WE), the San Diego organization started by friends of ours more than 13 years ago. We returned from that trip impressed with the Ugandan operation, a partnership resulted, and since then Steve and I have served as liaisons between the folks in San Diego and those in Uganda. WE has raised more than $100,000 for the Uganda organization, which lends that money to groups of women between the ages of 50 and 100 who are raising their orphaned grandchildren. Individual grannies in the groups borrow small amounts of money (typically $15 to $80) for four-month periods and use it to buy rabbits or pigs or other animals, craft materials, or items they can resell at a profit. Two representatives from San Diego visited two years ago to assess the microloan program up close, and now we’re here to follow up.

Because May 1 is a holiday in Uganda (as in many countries), we had Monday free. This suited us fine because we also wanted to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary on Ngambe Island, located in Lake Victoria, which adjoins Entebbe. I was vaguely aware of the sanctuary four years ago, but there was no time to squeeze in a visit. Since then, however, both Steve and I have read The Bonobo Handshake, a book about primate research set in part on the island. That amped up my desire to see the Ugandan refuge. Months ago, I contacted the sanctuary and made a reservation for us to hire a speedboat that would take us out for a day trip.

I awoke long before dawn on Monday to the rumbling of thunder. Uganda, like other parts of East Africa, has been suffering from a crippling drought, so it is happy news that in the last week, heavy rains have fallen. I have to confess, however, that when the pattering on our roof began early Monday, selfish thoughts assailed me. Soon the pattering turned into a downpour so violent it woke Steve. The pace of the thunder picked up, and I had to voice my concern: was it safe to venture out on a huge lake in a small boat during a thunderstorm?

[The Internet where I’m trying to post this in Kampala is horrible. I’ll have to write photo captions this way. The central compound of our guesthouse in Entebbe, which had looked like paradise Sunday in the late afternoon, was a swamp by Monday morning.]

At breakfast in the guesthouse dining room, I asked the assistant manager what he thought. Steady rain was still pounding down, but the thunder had abated, and he assured us the speedboat would certainly have some kind of canopy.

The guesthouse workers offered to give us a ride down to the boat dock, so we decided to assess the situation there. At first the facility seemed to be deserted, but then a guy appeared, a member of the boat crew, looking a little surprised to see us. (Although I’d reconfirmed our reservation a few days before our departure from San Diego, we hadn’t yet paid anything for the trip.) He said he’d have to go get some gasoline, but we should hang out under the overhangs, and we would depart soon enough.

[Our trusty vessel]

We strolled around, spotted the speedboat, and came upon another fellow who identified himself as one of the sanctuary cooks. He would be returning to the island after his block of time off. As we chatted with him, both the color of the sky and the intensity of the rain began to lighten, along with my spirits. I started to think the outing might not end in disaster after all.

And it didn’t. We shoved off just after 10 (instead of the scheduled 9 am departure). By then, it was only drizzling and the boat’s canopy protected us. I still might have risked hypothermia as the twin 115 Yamaha outboards revved up and we jounced and hydroplaned over the dark gray water. But the crew handed us heavy waterproof jackets and pants that kept us toasty and made me feel thrilled, rather than miserable, to be blasting in the direction of Tanzania at the start of a stormy day.

Our time on the island was pure fun from start to finish. The rain stopped, and we had to strip off the protective gear. Paul, the Ugandan chimp caretaker assigned to show us around, had been working on the island for 11 years; his knowledge of the sanctuary and its inhabitants was near-encyclopedic. The place is remarkable. Purchased 20 years ago by Jane Goodall and other chimpanzee fans, the island is a home for chimps who’ve been rescued from a variety of grim fates (poacher traps, war zones, pet traders). They get to hang out and play in about 95 of the island’s total 100 acres during the day, but at night they’re lured (by their evening feeding) into a giant cage-like structure where they sleep in hammocks.

[Part of the system of shoots that channel the chimps back to their sleeping quarters.]

[These two bad boys weren’t allowed to join the others in the jungle that day. Paul explained that one of them was angling to become the alpha male; the other was his “bodyguard.” They were causing too much trouble at the moment.]

[This two-year-old, nicknamed Survivor, was confined because he was still recovering from a broken leg — the second such injury he’d suffered from his violent and aggressive elders.]

They can’t just live independently in the forest because it’s only big enough to sustain 2 or 3 animals, whereas the community has grown over the years to include 49. During the day, electrified fences keep them from breaking into the 5 acres occupied by the caretaker quarters, small veterinary clinic, and other facilities for the humans. Since chimpanzees can’t swim, the lake water prevents most of them from making a watery escape, although Paul did tell us how one of the apes somehow managed to highjack a local fisherman’s boat — stocked with fish. That guy floated off for some time before the humans somehow recaptured the craft. Even more astounding was the story about the night a new worker forgot to padlock the animals’ sleeping quarters. The chimps noticed this in short order, broke out and began a wild rampage that had them marauding into the staff dining room. The humans all fled into the water to avoid being injured or killed. It only ended when a chimp named Megan got into the kitchen, found the stash of beer and wine, and alerted her fellows, who somehow got the bottles open and drank all the contents. Once drunk, they grew drowsy enough to enable their recapture.
Twice during the day we got a glimpse into why you’d want to keep a fence between you and the chimps at all times. They’re fed four times daily, and we got to watch the 11 am and 2:30 pm feedings. We positioned ourselves on an elevated platform.

As a worker approached with pails filled with fruit, resounding hoots issued form the forest, and soon the animals began appearing and positioning themselves along the fence.

We might have been 20 or 30 feet from the closest ones. That felt close, certainly close enough to feel their size and power, close enough to read their facial expressions.

Some raised an arm or clapped their hands or stamped their feet, demanding that oranges and carrots and avocado and chunks of jackfruit be lobbed in their direction. (They made me think of New Yorkers hailing cabs.) Savage fights with lots of howling and blood-curdling screams and teeth-baring and breakneck chases broke out several times during each feeding session. Then they ate all the food and disappeared into the jungle again.
They’re not as charming and lovable as the bonobo colony in our zoo in San Diego. But motoring home in the late afternoon over the glassy sun-dappled lake, I’ve never been happier that a little rain failed to stop us from enjoying the adventure.

[Our boat captain]