Mar

14

 Every so often I get the desire to sample the intoxicating perfume of the developing world and nothing else will satisfy me short of that wonderful combination of open fire smoke, dust, exhaust fumes and body odor in a new, strange land. The scent of cherry blossoms in Japan, kitchen aromas in Italy, or fresh Rocky Mountain air can't so effectively fire excitement about what unknown days lie ahead. When one of my best friends and I decided to head off on a guy-trip, there was no doubt that the best place to immerse ourselves in the developing world was Africa.

This trip was taken for many different reasons but a prominent one was to spend the truest wealth we have, our youth. I once heard a person mention that any older, monetarily wealthy person would give their entire fortune just to be young again. At 27 and financially comfortable, I'd give it all up to be 19 and broke once more. The worst thing I could imagine is to sit on my rocker at 80 years of age and have regrets about squandering youth and the opportunities that passed me by. Maybe it's just because I'm approaching 30 and believe that 30 is the new 40 when it comes to midlife crises that I'm thinking about these things.

Sir Richard F. Burton described the beginning of a trip best:

"Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood. Afresh dawns the morn of life."


The first stop was a two-day layover in Dubai that captivated me enough on visits a couple years ago that I wanted to return and see how it's continued to develop. I was amazed to find that construction hasn't visibly slowed down and projects that were initiated a couple years ago are still being completed. The Burj Dubai is still a couple years from opening as the world's tallest building and I figure I'll have to return by then to view the audacity of it all. Certainly the most surreal experience in the Emirates was snowboarding at the new snow slope in the Mall of the Emirates and then later that day going sandboarding in the desert during a break on a dune bashing tour in a Land Cruiser.

I arrived in Uganda at one of the most infamous airports, Entebbe, although the buildings that were around during the Israeli hostage rescue have been replaced. Because the Entebbe airport is on the breezy shores of Lake Victoria, it doesn't give that developing country smell immediately which normally kicks me in the face the first step out the door. Certainly one of the most unpleasant travel experiences is getting a taxi at a third world airport that lacks a taxi queue, which is virtually all of them. The most aggressive driver generally gets the fare. That is why I was happy to realize that I could somehow arrange for a driver to meet us and avoid the charade.

Kampala is by African standards quite safe, jovial, and entertaining. The capital appeared to have quite a large middle class with enough disposable income to support a relatively large number of restaurants and bars of good quality. Serving as the economic backbone to much of the country was the Indian population which owned many businesses that I frequented such as hotels and higher quality shops. The ownership of many successful businesses by Indians has led to an underlying resentment by the local black population similar to that experienced by the Lebanese in West Africa and Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. But as Idi Amin found out, the Indians are needed for the country to function. When it comes to functional ease as a tourist in Africa, I firmly believe that it doesn't get any better than being white, male, American, and young, all in that order.

 One of the highlights of Uganda is the opportunity to go gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the southwestern part of the country near borders with Congo and Rwanda. It also has a mountain gorilla population. Generally you can see the same wildlife over much of Africa but the only place to observe mountain gorillas is this region. It's quite refreshing to experience a safari on foot because the only way to get to the gorillas is a one to four hour hike up a 45-degree slope in the dense forest. Thankfully, we pursued the closest gorilla family and reached them in less than an hour.

So as to not disturb the gorillas too much, tours are limited to around a dozen people and can only observe them for an hour. The other restriction is that the park won't allow anyone with a communicable disease (flu, etc) to go on the trek because the mountain gorillas share about 97% of their biology with humans. Like most wildlife in the region, the gorillas are used to tourists and went about eating leaves the entire time we were there. Observing the gorillas, particularly the silverback, from less than a meter away was an amazing experience that I cannot accurately describe to others. It was also great to hike through the forest because much of Uganda has been cleared from slash and burn agriculture, which has left much of the countryside naked.

The other overwhelming highlight of Uganda is whitewater rafting down the Nile, just slightly below the source of Lake Victoria. A few years ago I had a great time rafting on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls and the guide mentioned that the only other place to experience high volume, warm water rafting was Uganda. So I knew such a visit was inevitable. Due to the large amount of flat water which required paddling, I thought the Nile was more arduous than the Zambezi but enjoyed it regardless. My main concern wasn't the class five rapids but what health problems that can result from the water. Most books I read advised against simply swimming in the Nile or Lake Victoria. But I happened to swallow multiple mouthfuls of water as the raft often flipped.

The final stop was 24 hours in Cairo to get a quick refresher glance at the pyramids, which if built today would still be stunning. As the pyramids at Giza were built in 2500 B.C. and have been receiving visitors since, the local population has had plenty of time to master the art of ripping tourists off. I'm not saying that all Egyptians are like this but simply around the tourist areas there is a hustling culture that is unmatched. I'm particularly annoyed that Middle Easterners like to call me friend while they're trying to rip me off.

It's also a shame to have such a wonderful tourist attraction as Giza. But the grounds of the pyramids could use some serious enhancements which only private enterprise could undertake. With the push into infrastructure assets, why not have someone like Macquarie Bank (with local partner of course) bid for the rights to oversee the attraction, clean up the place, and add much-needed improvements to facilities in return for a lump sum and a slice of revenue?


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