My favorite thing that elicited a great reaction from Ugandans was to tell them that Kenya got my blood, sweat, and tears, but Uganda got all my money. Especially because they all know that it’s really cheap to live in Uganda, but it’s really expensive to be a tourist there.
After spending four months in Kenya without going on safari, I was ready to drop some (semi-) fat stacks doing some touristy stuff. But I didn’t want to sit in a car all day long pointing my pathetic camera phone at animals and then sleep in tents where everything was done for me and brought to me (don’t get me wrong, when I’m sixty, that is all I hope to be doing). No, I wanted to be in the thick of it, I wanted to work and get uncomfortable and question if I could go through with it. I wanted to straddle that line between “Thousands of tourists have done this before me, it’ll be fine” and “Wait a minute, I don’t think the safety standards in Africa are the same as they are in the US…” For crying out loud, I’m in the middle of Africa! Let’s see some harrowing wild action! So I signed up for a full day of Class V whitewater rafting on the Nile River.
Since I was in Uganda during the slow tourist season, our raft was the only one going out that day. The five of us mzungus nervously chatted with each other at the rafting office as we tried to anticipate what in the world we had gotten ourselves into. There were two Texans (myself included), and three Australians. Combined, we had rafted in the US, Europe, South America, and Australia. So how bad could the Nile be, even if it was a Class V trip?
A few words about our guide, Juma: he's full of shit. I’m pretty sure every word out of his mouth was a lie. He was a flirt (he’s married) and a clown, but I would still trust him with my life, probably not with any family gossip, though. The thing is, I didn’t realized how much Juma had been pulling our legs the whole time until a few days later: collectively, we believed everything he said on the raft. I felt kinda jilted, but I also didn’t understand until another guide explained it to me that part of their job is to keep things light and entertaining the whole time, especially since a large portion of the trip takes place on still water as we’re paddling to the next rapid. They’re as much emotionally in charge of us as they are physically, and sometimes things get rough when friends get in fights, when people get overwhelmed by the rapids and don’t want to keep going, and even when engagements get called off (yes, that happened once). Yikes. Anyways, the next time I saw Juma on my second trip back to Jinja, I took the opportunity to punch him in the shoulder and say, “Juma! You’re SO full of shit!” He responded by flashing a bright white smile and by saying something that made me roll my eyes. He then walked over to a low-hanging tree and pulled off a pink hibiscus flower and very dramatically presented it to me. I took it and said “It’s a wonder that tree still has flowers if you’re picking them and giving them to all the ladies.” I turned around to grab my bag and the two European girls Juma had taken rafting that day showed me the flower he had handed them, too. We all again participated in the rotating of the ocular orbs ritual and I handed my flower to another guide, who threw it at Juma. And so, another African circle of life is thus completed.
When I went rafting in the US, our guide made sure to answer every question we had very seriously so that we absolutely felt comfortable and safe and knew that he was a trained professional and that nothing bad was probably going to happen (I’m furrowing my eyebrows and moving my arms like a robot as I’m typing this, but you can’t see that). Before we started, Juma showed us things like how to pull ourselves back in the raft if we fell out and where not to stick your feet in the raft if you don’t want to loose a toenail. When we asked him questions directly related to flipping or injuries or alligators, he would usually ignore them or answer with “HAHAHAHAHA!!” and move on.
Our first rapid was more like a waterfall, about a 6 or 7 foot straight vertical drop, which is really steep when you’re in a small raft and there’s water gushing everywhere. After we wiped the water from our eyes, I realized that the guy that had been in front of me was now sitting in my lap and my shorts were dangerously close to not being on me anymore. We took a few seconds to tighten everything and resume our positions perched on the outside of the raft, and then all nervously glanced at each other. Someone almost whispered, “That was kind of intense” and we all nodded in agreement and casually looked at Juma. Someone else asked him, “What grade rapid was that?” “Grade three.” He said without blinking or smiling, looking stoically off in the distance as he steered. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it gave us a taste of what was in store for us.
I finally weaseled into the other conversation, which had turned to South Sudan. Juma piped up: “Oh, I am from South Sudan (lie). You can tell by how dark I am and that I don’t laugh. Ugandans laugh too much (that part was certainly true). He enraptured us all with his (untrue) stories of what it was like in South Sudan, being an informant for the police to turn in people who illegally sell smuggled food to starving people, and then turning around and sell the seized food himself for a profit. It sounds so silly as I’m typing it now, but we all believed him. I’m still a little peeved that we all were genuinely interested in learning more about what was really going on in South Sudan, but can’t trust any of what he told us. Although the quote of the day was of course from Juma who stopped and thought for a minute and said, “Now who are those people who sit around…and watch war happen? Oh yes, the UN.” We all had a good belly laugh at that one, and I think there was some forehead smacking involved, too.
We flipped again a few rapids later, and this one was brutal. One girl kept getting sucked underneath the raft and I felt like I was drowning as I was swept down the rapid into more rapids, every time I gasped for breath, another wave would crash and force me underwater again. We were all a little shaken, despite all of us being collected and thrown back into the raft within 20 seconds of falling out (turns out we didn’t actually flip; Juma just dumped us out).
As we headed toward the final rapid, we got a hint that it was a big one. If we hit it right, we would surf on top of the rapid until the rapid decided it was done and spit us out the side. The girl that had gotten sucked under the raft the last time we flipped was visibly agitated and we were streetwise enough not to believe Juma’s downplay of how intense the rapid was. But in rafting, there’s no room for trepidation. After being blinded by more water and holding on for dear life as we tipped into the rushing chaos, we opened our eyes to realize that Juma had fallen out (lie—he probably jumped out), along with another girl. There was a brief moment where the four of us all locked eyes in the rotating raft and all thought at the same time, should be we doing something right now? We made a silent and instantaneous group decision to try to paddle, but that proved to be completely ineffective, so we just waited until we were spit out the side and then paddled to shore.
After we all had a chance to change and eat, we all talked about how we were totally not prepared for how intense that rafting was. Little did we know that the Nile has some of the best white water rafting in the world and that some foreigners come and live in Jinja for months at a time just to kayak or raft these rapids every other day.
At the end of it all, I felt like I had paid big bucks just to get beat up. I was exhausted and shaking, my legs were covered in bruises, my hands covered in cuts, and I was avoiding looking too closely at the split big toenail I got as I was hoisting someone in the raft and my foot slipped into that part of the raft that Juma said not to let your foot slip into. But man, we were happy. I can’t wait to do it again. After, of course, I have enough time to forget how terrible it was.