By Marisa Notier
The Notier Notes
Our Sunday Scoop
This week I'm taking us back into the past - to March 12, 2020 to be exact. It was one of the last days that borders were still open in Africa, but we didn't know it at the time. We were blissfully ignorant of what was to come.
Tim and I were in Rwanda, planning to head north into Uganda the next day, and we were traveling with our American friend Leo (for a recap of what we did in Rwanda, check out this blog post).
We stayed the night in a bar called One Degree South on the shores of Lake Kivu. We hadn't originally planned on staying in a bar overnight, and had just stopped there for lunch, but after meeting Hicham, the charismatic restaurant owner who was Lebanese/American and grew up in the Central African Republic, we didn't want to leave. Hicham and his wife were fascinating people. She was from Michigan and did charity work every day across the border in the DRC, and so we spent the night entranced by all their incredible stories.
The next day, we said our goodbyes and headed off to the border of Uganda. We passed by Volcanoes National Park, which is very aptly named due to its massive, conical volcanoes. And even though we got a little lost on a few backroads around the park, you really can't complain when you're lost in a place that has a backdrop like that.
At the border, we got a text message from Hicham. He said that his wife had been told that her work would be suspended because the DRC had closed all its borders overnight after discovering a coronavirus case in Kinshasa.
When we got this message, it was distressing to say the least. What was next? Closed airports, restaurants, businesses? Complete lock-downs? This was just the second case discovered in Sub-Saharan Africa, but I feared that if more countries got the virus, travel would be restricted, flights would be suspended, and the borders were going to close around us. And that was exactly what happened.
But at that moment, we were still in adventure-mode, and the virus still felt very far away. So as we made it across the border and into Uganda, we looked at the map, and noticed a nearby national park called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. And we knew that we simply had to penetrate it. I mean, come on, you can't name a forest like that and expect us to stay away.
As we approached the turnoff to the one road that went through the forest, the dark clouds of a massive thunderstorm hovered over the jungle ahead of us like an ominous warning. In the other direction, the main road led to sunshine and green pastures. Why were we going into the Impenetrable Forest again?
Of course, we took the little dirt road to Bwindi.
The wind picked up, the people in the villages started rushing home and heading for shelter, and I could feel the chills creep across my skin like I was entering Mordor from the Hobbit (or better yet, Mirkwood for all you Middle-Earth fans). Certainly, an evil sorcerer lived in these woods.
Maybe it was called the Impenetrable Forest for a reason.
The moment we entered the jungle, the rain started. Thunder roiled above us, darkness drenched the trees into shadows, and mist hung around us like spirits suspended in the air. The road hugged the mountains, and we twisted along it as we dodged puddles, rocks, and ravines of rushing water. It felt terrifying, and magical.
Actually, there are mysterious and ancient beasts that live in this forest. They're large, highly-intelligent, and powerful creatures that are the stuff of myths and legends - gorillas. Bwindi is one of the few places on earth that still support wild populations of gorillas, and although we didn't see any on our ride through, I thought I could feel their mighty presence like they were watching us through the trees.
That ride through the Impenetrable Forest was one that will always stay with me.
Once we got to the other side and left the forest behind, the sun came out, and rainbows arched over the hills in the distance. We had survived the forest's sorcery.
But because we had taken a road that no one really ever takes, we now found ourselves in an area of Uganda that never sees tourists. And there wasn't really a good town to stay at for the night. The only "hotel" we could find looked more a brothel, but we were so beat by the day's journey, that we were willing to take anything.
That may have been a bad choice.
The hotel room cost us $2 a night (probably twice the going rate for locals). We kept triple-checking this because we just couldn't believe it, but apparently, you get what you pay for. Not only was the damp, moldy, concrete room and spider-covered bed with no sheets pretty gross, but there was no running water in the place either. So the communal "bathroom" was just a couple of concrete stalls with holes in the ground that were covered in feces. The electricity was out that night (of course), and I remember going in with my headlamp to use the bathroom, and seeing such big cockroaches scuttling all over the place, that I simply decided to hold it.
And then the hotel bar had people shouting and partying to loud music all night... pretty terrible. But it didn't take long for us to realize that parts Uganda had a level of poverty that we hadn't seen in Rwanda. These people were working with what they had, and I was grateful that I could help support their business, even if it only was a few dollars. But most of all, I was also glad to get out of there.
The next morning, the three of us had to have a tough conversation - where do we go from here? And most importantly, if every country starts locking down around us, where do we want to get stuck? Do we want to fly home while we still can? Or stick it out? And if we do stick it out, do we want to stay in the countryside where we might have less exposure to the virus, or do we want the amenities of a big city?
Obviously, we chose to stay in Africa, which turned out to be a decision that we haven't regretted at all. But it was not an easy one to make, and it would take us a couple more weeks before we had any real idea of how things were going to turn out for us.
But before all that, we made sure to get in one last adventure - a ride through Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda: the land of tree-dwelling lions. But that will be for next week's blog.
Stay safe everyone, and I hope to see you again next Sunday!
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