and epic-tale: from lodwar to kotido

prepare thyself with mead and roasted meat, for below thou shalt find a truly epic tale of journey and patience/woe…

this tale should begin with me telling you that the journey from kotido to lodwar on friday took maybe about 6 hours. we actually drove out of kotido town around 7:30 a.m. and arrived in lodwar after a short stop in moroto around 2:00 in the afternoon.

i’ve told you that to tell you this:

the journey from lodwar back to kotido on monday technically started (as in we were in a vehicle and literally moving) around 2:00 p.m. and i walked in the door of my house close to midnight. let me help you with that math: 10 hours. however, if you take into account that we were up and ready to go by around 8:30 and sat around waiting in a place that wasn’t the most comfortable of waiting spaces, this means one can actually add 5.5 hours more to this journey time. making it 15.5 hours. 15.5 hours of sitting and waiting, eating, sitting and waiting, being hot and sweaty, not knowing whats going on etc etc etc.

and from the beginning:

the morning began with me pouring myself out of bed directly onto the cool white tile floor of our hotel in lodwar. the room was hot. even with the ceiling fan cranked at full blast all night long i woke up wet with sweat and kind of wishing i was dead. the direct move from the bed, out from under the mosquito net [yes, they do keep heat inside the net, if you didn’t know, only making the heat worse] and flopping onto the floor was a survival move. next to the bed, on the floor i was directly underneath said ceiling fan where i could actually begin to benefit from the moving air. that and the miracle of tiles being almost perpetually cool i think merits a patron saint of tiles.

whilst laying on the floor i remembered that i had woken up in the night unable to find my nose-ring. something about being SO HOT all night long has made me flop around enough in bed (sorry, housemate!) enough that my nose-ring fell out both of our last nights in lodwar. the first night it was just on my pillow, no problem. but this night i was searching for it semi-frantically in bed with my phone flashlight (again, sorry housemate!) because i thought that after almost 2.5 years of having it pierced it would close up overnight. i’m happy to report, it will not.

to make a long story about a nose-ring shorter, i found it while i was laying on the floor praying for snow to fall directly onto my body. it was about 5 feet away from my side of the bed, on the miracle tiles. mystery of mysteries. but at least it was found!

as i began to return to semi-consciousness/sanity i searched for my bottle of water to rehydrate from yet another freakishly hot night. its amazing how one feels much more like a human being after re-hydrating. everyone else was still asleep so i held off on furthering the cooling off process by standing under the cold shower. (see, community really is important to me!) to fill the time and not think about how hot and potentially stressful the day was going to be (oh, i should mention that we were out of kenya shillings at this point…) i decided to journal about the previous two days of lazing at lake turkana, sleeping under the stars on the beach, eating really tasty fish, getting a suntan, swimming and SEEING FLAMINGOS IN THE DESERT [pictures to follow in a different post].

once everyone was awake and slightly recovered from the heat, we all cleaned up and prepared for our day of travel back home.

other key facts to know before we continue:

* as previously mentioned, we’re out of kenya shillings and are mildly illegally in kenya (visas are for the weak.)
* the 4-wheel drive and diff-lock are “finished” on my land cruiser [that is to say: they work about as well as my ability to
suffer-fools…]
* did i mention that we’re out of money?
* we are relying on the kindness of a local NGO in turkana to help us out * to leave turkana (this region of kenya) and return to karamoja (this region of uganda) we have to climb a fairly steep escarpment/mountain. * things tend to not move at a quick pace in east africa. unless of course you don’t want them too, then its break-neck speeds. (not unlike the driver who helped us out. madre. it was fast.)

so, there we were. moneyless (okay i had plenty of uganda shillings in my purse but that’s kind of like trying to buy bread in zimbabwe with zimbabwean money (OKAY not that bad, but still.)) and not in control of much going on around us. the local NGO that was helping us out had to come from kakuma that morning so they instructed us to go to lodwar lodge and have breakfast–they would loan us kenya shillings until we could pay them back. (bless them.)

caveat: the fact that LOKADO was helping us out of the goodness of their peace-building hearts and the jesus’ love that apparently hides out in my heart is what probably kept me from imploding yesterday on this journey. its amazing what learning to accept charity (as in christ-like-love not hand-outs) and the knowledge of the power of the holy spirit (she’s crazy) can do in one’s life. seriously. there were several moments when i wanted to interject MY thoughts and MY ideas into the mix but it wasn’t appropriate culturally and, more
importantly, i know nothing about the turkana desert or the way that things in turkana and lodwar work. i kept my mouth shut and practiced accepting help. end caveat.

we went to the lodwar lodge, as directed by our friends from LOKADO and ordered a breakfast of an orange slice, a banana,
super-greasy-fried-omelet, 2 mandazi (fried bready doughnut-type triangle breads. also very greasy), a box of juice and chai (tea but not chai tea). thinking this would probably be the only meal of the day i actually ate one of the room-temperature greasy mandazi and had 2 of the juice boxes (annali didn’t want hers. freak).

the information we had was that the fellows from LOKADO would be arriving from kakuma around 10 (nope more like 11) and that then we would fuel up their vehicle (this is us borrowing money from them) and they would deliver us to kotido by evening. my vehicle was going to stay behind in lodwar to have the 4×4 and diff lock fixed and the driver we hired from KOPEIN in kotido would bring it back fixed.

then housemate received a phone call from her supervisor, the head of KOPEIN, saying that The Minister (of what, we never found out) was also coming to help us out. confusion abounded.

a representative of LOKADO arrived with his youngish (between 9 and 11) nephew. they settled in at our table, ordered cokes and waited with us. annali taught us an interesting time-wasting game involving bottle-caps that was something like a cross between table-rubgy (if ever there was such a thing) and paper-football. this passed the time until The Minister appeared with an entourage of many.

this finally gave housemate and i the opportunity to voice that, if at all possible, we’d really love to get gertie the land-cruiser back to uganda with us so that we can a) get it fixed here where we have local currency and b) we actually need it thursday for a journey to kampala. The Minister, his entourage and the people of LOKADO (i think there were 4 of them. hard to differentiate between them and the entourage) said “ah, yes! of course!”

as we three americans are just “girls” (regardless of the fact that i’m 28, i will always be a “girl” and not woman here until i’m married. OR even until that unlikely day that i produce a child out of my very own womb. please don’t hold your breath on that one.) the Big Men excused themselves from the table and away from our tender ears to discuss our future.

we were left watching some track & field events being held in russia. this actually turned out to be a great mode of distraction, the kenyan runners in the distance events were winning everything and we got to cheer along with the filling restaurant/pub. i was fascinated to the responses of east-africans to anyone who, to them, looked african but turned out to be from the united states, france and the UK (these are the ones i remember). they were SHOCKED that someone “that black” would not be african. “they must have immigrated recently.” was one statement we heard. none of we three americans had the energy to delve into the messy history of slave-trade (which i’m SURE they know about) or try to explain that yes, people of every colour live in every part of the world. no, really. they do.)

The Minister returned to tell us the decision that was made on our behalf: the LOKADO vehicle would carry us over the escarpment into uganda with my land cruiser following behind. the LOKADO vehicle was there to tow my car if it got stuck without having the 4×4
functioning. we found out that he had become involved in the mess because the head of KOPEIN had phoned him–so he and LOKADO were splitting the loan that we now were using.

we also learned in this setting that we were not going to be leaving until after lunch, so we should order lunch. silly me, i tried to protest saying that i wasn’t going to be hungry for lunch because i ate too much at breakfast, and that it was too hot for me to want to eat rice. and, as i should have expected, i was scoffed at and told, “but you never know what is going to happen! you should always eat if you have a chance, regardless of hunger!” i kept my “but its really unhealthy! i’ll just want to vomit! I DON’T WANT TO!” comments to myself and daydreamed about a beautiful leafy salad that i knew i wasn’t going to get.

i asked for cabbage “salads”, usually this consists of raw (or mostly raw because people here think i’m insane for eating totally raw foods) cabbage, onion and tomato with olive oil/vinegar/sugar mixture poured on top. keep this mind when lunch actually arrives…

we sat watching the track & field events for a few hours and randomly cheered for random countries in the high jump, pole vaulting, woman’s javelin throw, 400m hurdles and triple jump. when my anxiousness was about to drive me nuts our driver came and said that we should go to the hotel to pick our things.

thinking this meant we were going to walk the 1/4 of a mile and put them in my vehicle already at the hotel housemate and i said we’d go, only to find out that a vehicle was waiting to drive us literally around the corner (like the distance between natalie’s house and the school when the prime minister comes to tell her he’s in love with her in “love actually.”) no, really. it took longer for me to climb into and out of the vehicle than it did to reach the hotel. i digress.

we picked our things from the room, and were walking toward my vehicle when the driver corrected us to put it in the LOKADO vehicle as that is where we’d be riding. this was news to us, but as housemate and i have been here for three years we were (mostly) un-phased by this seemingly sudden change in plan. after loading up we were driven the millimeter back to the other lodge, squeezed out of the back of the LOKADO land cruiser and returned to our just-opened sodas and waters, waiting for lunch.

[an aside: kenya is awesome in that they have 500ml stoney. stoney is the most amazing ginger beer everontheplanet. uganda only has 250ml bottles of stoney. it was EPIC WIN to have many 500ml stoney experiences in kenya.]

lunch arrived. remember how i asked for “salads”? what arrived were four heaping piles of rice. at first i thought this was it and was resigning myself to eating plain rice (no problem)when a family-sized platter of chicken and sauce arrived on our table. we tried. really hard. i ate all of my rice, taking solace in the fact that ginger is really good for tummy problems (another reason that stoney is so awesome= natural magical properties of ginger).

we were then, FINALLY given the ‘nod’ to load into the LOKADO vehicle.

if you are a consistent reader of this blog you may remember a while ago when i posted about taking the bus from kampala to kotido, and that i do not allow myself to get excited about actually being “on the way” until totally clear of all kampala suburbs. this is the same for riding in someone’s vehicle. you aren’t really “on the way” until you’ve left town. this proved to be true in this journey as we had been moving for about a minute when we stopped for 10. then moving for another 30 when we stopped for about 10 minutes. then moving for about a minute before stopping for 10 more minutes. AWESOME.

at these stops these were the things that were happening: “putting pressure for the tyres”, buying milk (milk? really? on a hot day? no, thank you, i’ll stick with water.) and buying mira/chat. (mira/chat is a plant. chewing the leaves of this plant acts as a natural stimulant. it is quite popular for drivers and others who have to do things for long periods of time into the night to chew to keep themselves awake. its also just a popular and totally legal stimulant that, in my experience, falls somewhere between major caffeine rush and what i assume being on speed would feel like. i HATE it. its bitter and makes my body feel out of control. so imagine my displeasure that the man driving the vehicle i was riding in was chewing it like it was his job.)

finally finally finally we were on our way and outside of the moderate-sized-village of lodwar.the driver and our friend zamzam (friend, cultural and language interpreter, mother of 2 beautiful kids, colleague of housemate, joke-ster with an awesome laugh, and all around awesome lady) almost immediately began chewing mira. there was a marked difference between the speed of driving before and post mira chewing. here are two haiku poems to describe the differences in pace:

a haiku for pre-mira chewing:

finally we go
we are driving really fast
driver chews mira

2 haiku for post-mira chewing:

ohmygod much speed!
sliding on sand, bumpy bumps!
pretend its not real

play music real loud
imagine its a roller coaster
this is really quite fast!

as alluded to in the above haiku, my defense mechanism for things that are mildly terrifying (yet totally normal at this juncture in my life) is to put on some delightful music and focus on that and the scenery (but not the rate at which it is speeding past).

[what i can remember of the play list for this journey: MGMT (oracular spectacular & congratulations), MSTRKRFT (the looks), nathan (jimson weed), ani di franco (not a pretty girl, red letter year), the avette brothers (all albums), iron and wine (kiss each other clean, woman king ep), fleet foxes (helplessness blues), old crow medicine show (big iron world, o.c.m.s.) and hem (rabbit songs)]

driving through turkana made me realize that i really love the semi-arid and outright arid landscape. the desert is just so beautiful. i love the scrub trees, and the few brave tall trees. in turkana there are the most massive ant-hills i’ve ever seen…camels! grazing and roaming, the turkana people who are the kind of tall and lean that living in this harsh landscape lends itself to–women’s necks adorned with beads they wear for their entire lives and the lanky men with their stool/head rests and walking sticks, little shepherd boys running around in packs tending their sheep and goats wearing less than their herds–the vibrant desert birds soaring and flitting around, tiny little deer bounding across the road. the patterns the wind makes in the sand, the harshness of the sun. all so beautiful. so welcoming yet skeptical of outsiders…

the LOKADO vehicle we were riding in went out ahead of my vehicle–we would stop after completing a task that may have “caught” my vehicle without 4×4. the driver would park the car in whatever shade he could find and we would all crane our necks around to watch for
gertie-the-green-land-cruiser to come barreling around a corner. (we couldn’t just phone someone else in that vehicle because, of course, there was no network coverage in the turkana bush.) once we would see gertie (who NEVER got stuck, thank you) the LOKADO driver would gun our vehicle as to stay ahead. invariably this meant that we were smooshed against the back of our seat and would all make “HUMPH” noises as the air was semi-knocked out of us.

we stopped like this after each dry(ish) river bed we crossed (there were 4 or 5 of these) and at the last village before leaving kenya. then the real fun began in climbing up the escarpment into uganda. the LOKADO vehicle was in great shape and made the climb with no problem. there was on rather steep spot where the 3 people from LOKADO riding in my vehicle jumped into the back of the LOKADO truck to make gertie lighter.

when i looked back at M (the driver we’d hired) before this portion of the escarpment he had a cigarette in his mouth and a crazy look in his eye. we climbed this portion of the escarpment in the LOKADO car and waited for him to come up and around the corner. while we were waiting those in the back and jumped out to try and see if he’d been “caught” or if he was really coming. all of a sudden there was gertie, BLAZING around the corner kicking up dust and not slowing down. there was a lot of yelling as the men jumped back into the truck leaving while the driver also jumped back in, gunning it so as to not be hit head on by gertie. this was done with enough haste that the back door was left open. we were all yelling and laughing and cheering that M had made it up pretty much under his own power.

upon reaching a more level place the community of men who had joined M in my car (we assume mostly for moral support as he was quite nervous) jumped out and rejoined him–when i caught a glance of him then he had a stick of mira in his mouth and was grinning. i couldn’t tell if it was an ‘ohmygod i just DID that’ grin or a ‘ohmygod its not over yet’ grimace-grin. there’s just no way of knowing.

we were so. very. close. to reaching moroto, perhaps about 30 minutes or less outside of moroto town) when we reached what was once a culvert-bridge. these are pretty common around here: in places where the road is prone to seasonal flooding a concrete culvert will be placed and then buried in soil creating a “bridge” of sorts over these sometimes-flooded areas. this particular culvert-bridge had a really huge culvert in the ground (maybe about 5 feet tall and about 15-20 feet across) and was very fine when we passed over it 5 days earlier.

but after some rain at some point in these 5 days a huge rift had been created all the way from one side to the other. the rift was maybe 4 feet wide (a real guess as i never got out of the car to inspect it). the rushing of the water must have been a flash-flood as there was no standing water anywhere around. people had clearly been passing to the east of this bridge in the was-river-bed. however, just before we got there a medium sized lorrie got totally stuck. leaving us stranded on the other side.

the two drivers got out to investigate and see if we could pass on the western side. nope, it was an even more intense drop-off that would probably tear up the undercarriage of both cars. M and my gertie reversed back to see if there was another way to pass through the rocky and semi-mountainous bush on the eastern side. one of the other LOKADO fellows stayed behind with us and perched on top of the truck to watch their progress. once we saw that they were passing up near the mountains, in the direction we were in fact heading we too went in search of this trail.

meanwhile, trying to make the best of things, i ate an orange and took photos of the stunning dusk landscape.

there were a number of people moving up and down the roads from what looked to have been a food distribution so we were asking people along the way where the other “motoka” had passed. we were about to try one rather muddy looking track when a boy of about 12–who had a bucked slung across his back making him resemble a funny turtle–said he knew where they would have passed, and it wasn’t this track. driver asked him to show us, so he started running a head as we turned around, bucket bouncing on his back. when we reached the correct track he continued to run in front of us to show the way. yes, i did take a video.

after a bit he pointed the way but we still had to stop and look for the tire-tracks. my better-than20/20-vision-eyes spotted the 1-foot-long mark in the sand, and we bounced our way over spiky scrub brush back to the road. when we reached the other vehicle the group of people who had gathered around waiting to see if we’d make it started yelling and clapping in congratulations. yay community!

we finally reached moroto around 6pm. thinking that the hard part was over, and still under the impression that LOKADO was going to spend the night in moroto then return to turkana the next day we three americans started to disentangle ourselves from the truck and were considering moving our luggage from that truck to gertie only to learn that there had been “a development.”

a phone call had been received from the head of KOPEIN saying that there had been rain, so that the 2 “bridges” between moroto and kotido were probably flooded. he advised LOKADO to continue on with us in case gertie couldn’t forge these places. the LOKADO vehicle is a true bush-NGO-vehicle equipped with a snorkel, a shovel strapped to the top, properly functioning four-wheel-drive and a wench. gertie has none of those things (well, except a normal shovel (not a
fancy-sand-shovel) bouncing around in the back seat).

we grimaced at this news, loaded back into the LOKADO vehicle to wait for another hour (just for funsies, apparently) during which i reminded myself that i was thankful for LOKADO helping us, and that i should accept this assistance with gratitude and grace.

two false-starts later (one for ‘short-call’ one for boxes of juice and bottles of water) we started the bumpiest portion of the journey. typically, driving between moroto and kotido supposedly takes about an hour. i have never experienced this magical 1-hour-ride…in my experience as a driver and as a passenger it takes around 2. in this epic-journey it took 6. yes, six.

as it was nearing 7p, it was soon dark, that ‘its sort of cloudy and the moon is still new-ish & there is no ambient light in the bush’ dark. we bumped along without incident for a bit before reaching the first of the two “bridges”.

“bridge” because they are in places where seasonal rivers quickly form and concrete is involved. but rather than go UP over the water as one would assume a bridge does, these “bridges” are paved v-shaped creations that actually dip LOWER into the ground rather than attempting to rise above it. while i understand and appreciate that driving through water on a paved road is much more preferable to random stones or just mud, i still don’t get the dipping down aspect of this “bridge”.

M, gertie and occupants had already forged the first one, which when we passed through our headlights were under the water, before stopping on the moroto side of the second one. where we sat for maybe an hour. what i could understand from the conversation going on outside the vehicle (in 2 if not 3 languages none of which were english, hence slight-gleaning not total-understanding) was that they were assuming this place was deeper than the first and that the kotido-side embankment looked steep and really muddy–perfect for getting “caught”.

at least 3 of the men took turns throwing rocks into the water toward the middle (lowest point) and far sides of the wide-ish river. i have no idea how to tell the depth of water by throwing a stone into it, but attempted to assume that they did. apparently, they didn’t, as M decided to just wade in and see first hand. much to everyone’s surprise it was only knee deep at the deepest point. excellent!

we forged ahead, LOKADO first, then we craned our necks around to watch gertie (who is apparently a cyclops at this point. what happened? no idea) make her way through the stream/river. she made it! M stopped beside us to check the air-filter and make sure that gertie didn’t take on any water in the crossing and said that it was fine. so, we were off again.

except. then we stopped 4 minutes later for a short call.
and then we stopped 5 minutes after that because M wanted to change the bulb in the working light to the other side of gertie. epic fail. now neither of the head lights work. cool.

we experimented with us driving behind M & co. lighting their path, which didn’t really work because the road is really potholed and rough in this area. so then we tried to drive in front of them–they were then navigating off of hazard lights and our tail-lights. i managed this stress and unknown by falling asleep.

i awoke who knows how much later when we stopped. the driver was informing us that gertie and M were going to sleep at the military protected kraal (where the karimajong people keep their livestock so it [ostensibly] will not be raided). progress was too slow and its not terrible safe to move at a snail’s pace through the bush after dark.

housemate and i needed a few things from gertie to make it through the night (my blankets, her mosquito net) so we folded ourselves out of the truck and into the cool of a karamoja night. i was past caring to be cranky and truly just accepting whatever was happening and therefore able to notice the wonderful coolness of the night, the beauty of the stars against the karamoja landscape, the familiar smells of livestock in the karamoja bush and the faint sounds of people singing and dancing traditional songs.

i welcomed the fresh and cool air as not only familiar but as a welcome change from the hot nights in turkana–i smiled at the sounds of dancing and singing as they are symbols of peace and trust that no one is going to come and raid them in the night. sometimes, it really is the tiny-little things that make a difference.

we walked to the soldier’s camp where the car was parked, collected our things, greeted one of the soldiers and thanked him for letting our vehicle stay, thanked M for staying with the car and saying “sorry” for its sorry state. he just smiled and said, “no problem. see you tomorrow.”

i was thankful to find my fleece in the bag with my blankets and promptly put it on, wrapping my scarf tightly around my neck for the rest of the journey home. with all the people from two cars now in one it was an interesting mixture of too much body heat and too much cool air coming through the windows. i quickly found some new music to listen to that was soothing enough for my soul and yet loud enough to drown out the conversation being yelled over my head from the very back of the truck to the front. (it was hem’s “rabbit songs” by the bye.)

soon i was asleep again and only awoke when we were pulling into kotido–it was the tight left turn a little too fast around the round about that did the trick. within 5 minutes i was out of the truck and in my very own yard wondering why my living room light was on. (apparently we just forgot to turn it off when we left. oops.) the LOKADO vehicle was gone by the time housemate and i made our way inside and through the cobwebs that take over the house after just one empty day.

i sat with the dog, freddie mercury, as she flipped out on the veranda until she was satisfied that we were really home and ran off into the yard to play after being chained up in our absence.

wash face.
wash feet.
brush teeth.
sleep.

“…in the likeness of Mentor and with Mentor’s voice, made peace between both parties and ended the strife for ever.”

“God,” says the king, “how wearisome my life!” He weeps and pulls at his white beard. Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.”

“They said that he was of earthly kings the kindest of men, and the gentlest, the gentlest to his people and most eager for praise.”†

†if you can name these three famous epic tales WITHOUT the aid of the internet OR hard copy books you will win a prize. to be determined by me after seeing how many smarty-pants are reading my blog.

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One thought on “and epic-tale: from lodwar to kotido

  1. Oh my gosh, that was a tale to tell! I am SO glad you had a driver! Imagine how much worse that could have been (and maybe a little bit better), had you been without. Magellan & I thank you greatly for the journey and i hope the Lake was totally worth it!

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