Bike Trip

View Josh & Bruce's Canadian Bike Trip in a larger map

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Into Africa

                             ...when first
                             I came among these hills...
                             I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
                            Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
                            Wherever nature led: more like a man
                            Flying from something that he dreads, than one
                            Who sought the thing he loved.
                            ...I cannot paint
                            What then I was.  The sounding cataract
                            Haunted me like a passion.
                                                      -William Wordsworth

Leaning forward against my seatbelt to peer out the small, plastic window, I struggle to catch a glimpse of the land before touchdown. The effort to adjust my eyes from the bright fluorescent cabin lights of the large Airbus to the infinite blackness outside proves nearly impossible. The only thing to be seen is the turbulent ocean of air and condensed moisture churning ominously and is visible only when the lightening scatters its fractious beauty throughout the dark and formless clouds. Then, just after giving up the effort, we break through the cloud layer that had separated us from contact with the ground, the same one, though now on the opposite side, that obstructs our view of the moon and stars.  Small ground fires and the orange lights of Entebbe come into focus and within minutes we are touching down and coming to a slow stop at our gate. 


Just five days ago I was in Alaska, a 10-hour difference in time and I imagine, just a slight deviation geographically and culturally from where I now find myself.  Thus far the trip over here has gone surprisingly well. Despite my occupation, I still find myself marveling that for the right price and a little patience to endure over 14 hours in the air, one can skip from North America to Europe to East Africa in about 1 day. 

Stepping off the plane at Entebbe International and onto African soil, a first among many more to come for me, I find myself almost dizzy with excitement and awe.  After spending the last 30 hours in airport terminals and passenger jets breathing in their stale, recycled air, walking outside and being hit by the warm and balmy air is a bit of a shock.  Palms sway in the humid breeze, a breeze that carries with it the smell of Lake Victoria which lies not even a mile away.

A short, thin Ugandan man, bearing a smile and blue shirt that reads 'AirServ International' approaches and introduces himself. His name is Godfrey and he tells me that he's my ride. Just to make sure I ask to see some kind of identification which he gladly produces but I'm too tired to give it any sort of thorough examination. After a few pleasantries and collecting my 2 checked-bags we hop into a old, run-down van bearing the same name as his shirt. With Godfrey driving from the front right seat, myself in the left, the sights of Entebbe rush past my open window and I relish the feeling of being on the ground once again. Ten minutes later the two of us pull through the gates of the AirServ crew house.

Despite the fact that most of our immediate neighbors live in shanty houses held timidly together by decrepit wooden planks, their walls consisting of tarps and roofs of rotting tin sheeting, the neighborhood is, relatively speaking, decent. Not more than a mile down the road is the mansion (one of many I'm told) that houses the Ugandan President. Later the next day, a gaunt-looking shopkeeper tells me through a toothless grin that it is referred to comically as "The White House".

A four bedroom, single-story house enclosed by walls with a heavy metal gate dictating who enters and who leaves, the AirServ-Entebbe house is surprisingly nice. A guard stands on constant watch as well as a worn-out looking German shepherd named Jill. Jill's purpose seems to serve more as companionship to the guard and the constant ebb and flow of inhabitants rather than as any security measure since she is much more likely to approach you looking for a belly-rub and food than to chase away any would-be trespassers. Upon arrival I'm greeted by Patrick and Cos, two other AirServ pilots. Both are here for several days for aircraft maintenance before splitting off and departing to Johannesberg and Nairobi respectively. So far things have gone relatively well and apparently I should consider myself lucky since talking to my two new co-workers, I am told of how often flights here are delayed, baggage gets lost and people arrive at airports to find no one is there to pick them up.

Despite the fact that I've been up for more than 34 hours straight I end up on the back of a "boda-boda", a small 200cc (at best) motorcycle for hire screaming down the dark, unlit Entebbe streets in search of food with the other two. Our first stop is Four Turkey's to gauge tonight's nightlife. It's an experience that I'm sure will prove impossible to forget. We're there for no more than 20 minutes, yet 19 of those minutes are consumed with literally pushing away the incredibly persistent women who are looking for 'work' that night while insisting that we aren't interested. The conversation becomes borderline impossible with their constant hovering presence and so deciding it's not worth the hassle we move on.

Four Points is the next destination. An outdoor restaurant popular among the transiting AirSev pilots, it's a quiet locale with an extensive and varied menu, but particularly good Indian food. I still have a million unanswered questions about AirServ so much of the time is passed trying to get a sense of what to expect from life in Goma and the job in general.

Finally back to the house. I'm so tired I lay down on my bed, telling myself it will only be for a minute. Four hours later and still very dark out, I wake up, fully clothed with my legs still hanging off the bed and my mosquito net still up. Trying to get a few more hours sleep proves impossible between the jet-lag and roosters doing their normal pre-dawn routine and I drift in and out of sleep in short, unsatisfying fits. When I do wake up for the last time around 7am the very first thing my eyes happen to focus on strikes panic into me. As clear as day, at the opposite end of the bed, fixed to the top of my mosquito net and clearly on the wrong side is one lonely tetsi fly.

"Great, I've been here less than 12 hours and I probably already have malaria."

I make sure he dies a quick death but that does little to allay the sick feeling in my stomach about the prospect of getting malaria. I'm sure I'm fine, but I've heard and read plenty of horror stories about what is entailed when ones contracts malaria. Even though I've been assuming that I'll get it at some point (it seems everyone who comes here does), I don't think I'm ready for it yet. Maybe after a few months I'll be up for the challenge.

There are plenty of other firsts and excitement during the first couple of days in Africa:  a few of us went to Kampala one night and I thought I was going to die (or at least get horribly maimed - getting used to public transportation would take some adjustment I quickly discovered); getting lost late one night on the dark streets of Entebbe, wandering around for almost an hour trying to find the AirServ house, asking locals for directions to the only close landmark that I knew: a daycare center not far from the house with the creepy name "KissyFur"; eating at the Imperial Botanical Gardens on the shores of Lake Victoria with monkeys hovering in the trees above and around the table waiting for scraps of food or a thoughtless diner to not pay proper attention to his plate; and plenty of sleepless nights, tossing and turning, listening to thunderstorms pass through the middle of the night followed by the sound of goats and chickens, insistent on reminding everyone of the arrival of morning, as if it might be missed.  

But mostly I was wrapped up in my own thoughts, trying to take it all in, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Saturday's flight that would take me to my new home, to Goma, to Congo, to see what kind of life was awaiting me there. Saturday arrived soon enough, and I realized that all the reading and pictures and questions would prove useless to prepare me for the initial shock of stepping off the plane and setting foot there for the first time.  

Monday, August 25, 2008

Alaska Recap

       Just returned from Alaska.  Overall the trip was a lot of fun.  The landscape was nothing short of spectacular and I’m so grateful for having had the opportunity to go there, but leaving your little sister behind, knowing you’re going to be 10,000 miles apart and having no idea when you will see her again pretty much sucks.  

       The highlight, at least for me, was the couple of days spent in Denali National Park.  It wasn’t nearly enough time; at least a month would be needed to even begin to do it justice, but even just the few days we spent camping there and exploring the interior of the park were incredible.  

       The most interesting part was trying to get back to Anchorage from Denali.  We left the park around noon driving south on Route 3, the only direct road between Denali and Anchorage.  Hannah and I had picked up two hitchhikers who were trying to make it to the airport in Anchorage to catch their flight back to New York after having spent 6 weeks hitchhiking around the state.  They were cutting it really close to their departure time, but we felt confident that we could get them there in time.  

       After thirty minutes we approached a construction worker in the road who was bringing traffic to a halt.  Coming to a stop, we watched as the car in front of us carried on a muted exchange with him, then proceeded to pull a U-turn and return in the direction we were all coming from.  


We pull up next and ask what’s going on.  

“There’s been an accident” he explains,

“A natural gas tanker rolled just down the road” 


“The road will be closed for 30 to 40...” 

minutes, please God, let him say minutes...



 “You’re going to have to turn around, go through Fairbanks and hook around on Route 2”  

That’s 15 hours minimum, as opposed to the 4 hours we were planning on.  Unbelievable.  

       We pull a U-turn and start back up the road trying to figure out what we’re going to do.  Drive it?  Go back to Denali for another day or two?  There’s GOT to be another way.  Either way, the two guys in the back seat  have officially missed their flight.  We pull out the map and discover one road that we could take that would allow us to skip having to go all the way up to Fairbanks.  

New ETE for Anchorage: 10 hours

  After a quick stop at one of the gas stations that are so few and far between on the road, we turn East onto the Denali highway.  “Ok” we’re thinking, “so this is going to take a little longer than expected, but we’ll get to see a lot more of Alaska this way.  Things could be worse”  

They sure can

After 10 minutes down the ‘highway’ the pavement stops and becomes gravel.  

“This can’t possibly be gravel for the next 150 miles” 

Oh yes it can

       For the next 3+ hours we proceed to speed along twists and turns on the Denali highway taking in the incredible scenery.  At least I assume it was incredible.  Bouncing and sliding along the ‘highway’ everything becomes a little blurred, your back starts to hurt and you’re more than a little preoccupied with the thought “Please don’t get a flat tire, please don’t get a flat tire, we are SO screwed if we get a flat out here”  Over the course of the 150 mile stretch of road we see only a handful of cars and there's literally a whooping two places to stop, all of which not-surprisingly have large signs anxiously proclaiming “Tire repairs performed here!!!”  

       We made it across barren landscape, car and tires intact, though what used to be a black Camry is now definitely a brown Camry.  

Only 7 more hours to go

       The rest of the trip goes relatively smoothly.  Down through Gakona, Glennallen, Palmer, and the now (unfortunately) famous Wasilla.  After a while it’s almost difficult to stave off the creeping indifference to the beauty of the mountains, rivers and glaciers since there appears to be no end to them.  Finally, descend back into Anchorage.  We drop our traveling companions off at the airport, wish them better luck on their flight home than we had on the drive and say goodbye.  The rest is details.  

  Moved Hannah into her dorm and we went shopping WAY too much to outfit her with all the typical college-dorm paraphernalia.  There was a day-long orientation for students and parents at UAA.  I was a bit unsure of what was expected of me, though figuring I was there on my parents behalf, when the large group of student and parents split up I found myself sitting in on the parent sessions and on the receiving end of some very odd and perplexed looks.  The comments I got ranged from the kind:

 “Umm, aren’t you supposed to be in the other room with the other students?” 

To the confrontational:

 “You have leave right now, you can’t be here in this meeting, this is for parents only!”  

       Though they probably never fully believed me, the other parents did come to accept the presence of a 26 year-old who was apparently claiming to have an 18 year-old daughter that he was dropping off for her first year at college...They grow so quick...

  In the end I actually came back home to Connecticut one day earlier than planned because as time went on I realized how much I still had to do to get ready and pack for Africa and my planned one day layover back home just wasn’t going to be enough.  A painful good-bye ensued at the airport curb followed by a sprint to the gate since I had been unable to pry myself from her any sooner than I absolutely had to.  

       The thought of having to get on another flight in 2 days, this one destined to traverse one ocean and two continents is incredibly exciting but a little sad too.  I don’t expect the coming good-byes to be any easier but they’re inevitable and are a necessary part along the coming journey. 

Thursday, August 14, 2008

To Africa, via Alaska

       Over an unfamiliar landscape at 34,000 feet the sun has been hanging just above the horizon for the past 3 hours in a seemingly suspended, perpetual sunset. Hopelessly, my fellow travelers and I pursue it westbound, only for the moment and for another four hours it appears that we are succeeding.

       Somewhere over the expansive canadian provinces, we are making our way toward Anchorage. The plan is simple: cram in as much of Alaska, it’s mountains, rivers, inlets, glaciers, towns and cities all with my sister, quite possibly my favorite person in the world. Yeah, there’s the whole “moving-her-into-the-dorms-of-UAA” the official purpose of my trip, but....being my first time to Alaska I’m hoping we will be able to take in as much of the state as possible.

       I also can’t think of a better way to spend 10 of my last 11 days in the U.S. The day after returning from Anchorage I set off for, what is to me, the huge and gaping unknown of Africa. After months of planning and years of dreaming I’m finally going - flying for AirServ is actually happening.

       Provided everything goes according to the current plan my ultimate destination and future home for the next year will be the city of Goma in the far eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC. A city hemmed in by Lake Kivu to the south, one very active volcano a few miles to the north and refugees of the past and current conflicts of Rwanda and Congo, Goma serves as one of the largest and oldest bases of operations of humanitarian flights for AirServ International.

       For the past few months I’ve been bombarded with questions about AirServ: What will you be doing? What will you actually be flying? Will you be carrying a gun over there? What are the living conditions like? Why on earth are you doing this? Some of the questions I’ve been able to answer, some I haven’t. Hopefully sometime in the near future I will have an answer of sorts to them all.

       But for now, I’m content with the questions and the unknown. For so long I have had answers, a plan, an order in my life and a fairly intentional direction. Though over time those plans have steadily changed and now I find myself on a course whose path and destination aren't so clear to me and I kind of like that. So for now, I find myself relaxing in the vast, expansive unknown of where life is taking me, except for knowing that in the immediate future, it is leading me to the Congo, that is, right after a quick stop in Alaska.