Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amsterdam

 On our way to Uganda we flew into Amsterdam, stayed 3 nights, took a train to Brussels, Belgium, stayed overnight, and then took Brussels Airlines, first landing in Rwanda then proceeding to Entebbe, Uganda.


The best way to fly to Africa via United Airline is to fly to Europe then take one of the United Alliance airlines to fly south. In order to break up the trip and go somewhere we wanted to visit we chose Amsterdam.
I must say I loved Amsterdam, home of the Anne Frank museum, Dutch masters’ art museums, many canals, wooden shoes, windmills, bicycles, trams, beautiful men and women, and legal marihuana. We taxied to the renowned Pulitzer Hotel very close to the Anne Frank museum and on one of the main canals. Late afternoon we took a canal trip on beautiful hotel boat that once carried Winston Churchill through the canals and out into the ocean harbor.


The next morning, we walked two blocks to line up at the entrance to the Anne Frank museum.  It was early morning and many people were already lined up but after 20 minutes we arrived at the payment window.  Afterwards, we ate along the sidewalk as it was a beautiful day.  Lots of bicycles, quiet trams, small cars, were in evidence.  The sun was warm and tourists and non-working locals also found a sidewalk caf├ęs that lined the streets and canals. 
Many kinds of boats were in constant motion along the canals and we learned people have boat homes on the water that are permanently moored.  They have all the utility hook-ups that a RV camper has at a camp site.
Those who know me well would assume that I would check out the “brown coffee houses”, and they would be right.  A “brown coffee house” is where you can LEGALLY buy marijuana.  This was quite an experience.  Doing a little on-line research, I learned where the best shops were and found one near the hotel.  The one I went to was not seedy at all.  It did have remnants of 70’s art on the walls but the music was modern soft rock.  Cushioned benches and chairs were provided with a very small cube to set your bong down upon.  The smallest amount I could purchase was a gram and there were several varieties to choose from.  Being cautious, I asked what was recommended and after establishing I didn’t want to get wasted and only want to get high, I bought a gram that lasted the 3 days in Amsterdam.  I lit up about 4:20 PM and came back each day as it was illegal to smoke in the streets or hotels.
We took a fine dining boat trip during our stay which included a trip out to a part of the North Sea.

 After the diner cruise, we walked through the famous red light district where young, beautiful women in skimpy lingerie were on display through small store front windows. What eye candy!

Wooden shoes and windmills are a must to see so we signed onto a small bus tour and visited a tourist place where we saw how wooden shoes are made today. Machines help out a lot but there still is some hand work to be done. The shoes are still very popular amongst the farmers. Wood lasts much better than leather where walking on dampness is common.

We did venture up into the inter-workings of the wind mills and saw that they were very substantial structures made from wood.


Our last day, we walked from our hotel about one mile and went to the Rijksmuseum which was going through extensive renovation. But we saw a fabulous Dutch master’s art collection and some insight into the technique the artists used.

Oh, yes, we have tulips.


We learned that pancakes are very popular in the Netherlands but they are not eaten at breakfast, in fact the very popular restaurant, The Pancake Bakery” is closed until 11 AM. We did have pancakes for lunch.

I was totally impressed with the liberal way of life in Amsterdam. The Dutch seem to be happy people who allow others to accept responsibility for the lives. I mean, prostitutes openly (and tastefully, I might add) displayed and cool places to enjoy a doobie means their minds are in a completely different place than most Americans. I wish we were more like them.


We took a train down to Brussels and stayed and took a taxi to the 5-star Amigo Hotel, one block from The Grand Place public square, a World Heritage Site, and 3 blocks from the famous statue, “The Little Pisser”.
Maison Du Roi (The King’s House)
The Guild Buildings.
The Brussels City Hall
The Grand Place at night.

The Little Pisser.

On our hotel room wall, two copies of Belgium artist Rene Magritte’s art.


We left for our long flight to Entebbe the next day.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Uganda

 President Museveni has been the President for 25 years and just was “re-elected” for another term. Thee opposition leader was attacked by the police when he tried to organize a protest close to the smearing in ceremony. There have been no details about his injuries but “the police sprayed his face and back with pepper spray and tear gas then dragged him face down and stuffed him into improvised seats on the back of a police pick-up truck, the way they do unidentified corpses, accident victims, and armed robbers.” This led to some sporadic violence resulting in some deaths and a crackdown on the media.

All this happened before the AIDS conference here and we have not heard about any further incidents although being ensconced in our highly rated Hotel Serena, there is little opportunity to really judge the temperament of the country.

While Judith was attending her conference, I had an opportunity to take some tourist ventures and I found out that seeing the gorillas was a 3 day event and I would return the day we would leave. So I passed and instead took a white water rafting trip on the Nile and then went to the source of the Nile where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria.

I was picked up at the hotel at 7 AM and was driven to Jinja, a trek of 90 minutes in a van with a dirty windshield. Along the way I saw hundreds of people walking to work or school or riding in vans that are used for mini-taxis. We were driving against the main traffic flow into the city. Along the way I saw many, many supply trucks, some overloaded with green bananas. They stopped at markets where the market sellers were preparing their wares for display, mostly on the ground. While there are a few “supermarkets” in Kampala, the main place to buy food for the day outside the city and mostly within is at these markets.

I noted that all women wear long skirts. There were no exceptions. This required them to ride side saddle on motorcycles always driven by men of course. And come to think about it, I saw no women drivers of any vehicles. Mind you Uganda is not primarily a Muslim country, but a Christian one where displays of “God is Good” are seen frequently on buildings and on a few of the mini-taxis.


This seems like a perfect place to digress about some very brief Uganda history. When the white man first came to this neck of the woods in Africa they brought in Catholics from France and Protestants from England. The resulting religious politics that were trust upon the king caused no end of grief for him and tried to make a deal with the Germans, but the Germans made a deal with the British to cede several territories to them for exchange for a small but strategic island in the North Sea. In 1893, the Union Jack flew over the newly formed territory called Uganda. England ruled until 1952, then the next 10 years independence was fought for and on 1962 a leader named Obote inherited a nation fragmented along religious and ethnic lines to the point of being ungovernable. Skipping along to 1971, Obote flew to Singapore leaving behind instructions to his army commander to explain the disappearance of $4 million U.S. dollars out of military coffers and his involvement in the murder of a brigadier and his wife. The commander decided his only option was to strike and Kampala was rocked with the news of a military coup led by Idi Amin, a killer with the demeanor of a buffoon. He was responsible for the murder of 300,000 Ugandans and finally was disposed when he overreached and declared war on Tanzania and was driven out of Kampala by Tanzanians and Uganda exiles in 1979.

This should have been terrific news, but most Ugandans now regard the 7 years after Amin’s exile to be worse than under Amin. Corruption and violence continued and eventually the current president Museveni, came to power in 1986 and instead of violence continuing, he was able to establish a Human Rights Commission, established the rule of law, increased freedom of the press, and was able to govern without the past ethnic divisions causing trouble. Economic growth was 10% in his first decade. He established a no party system explaining that Uganda needed stability and the past ethnic divisions would emerge with a multi or two party systems.

I cannot escape the parallel to China here. Both have a one party system whose stability has brought economic growth and a mostly united nation, but a government that has no room for dissention, and periodic crackdown on freedom of the press when criticism is voiced. At least China is wise enough to change leaders once in a while, although just how a successor is chosen is a big mystery. My question is how a successor will be chosen in Uganda and will it be a peaceful transition.

But, back to my rafting trip.

On the way to the rafting place, we crossed the Nile and saw a big hydro-electric dam which supplies most of the electricity to the nation. A short ways away was the sign-in place for the rafting. I explained that I only wanted the ½ day trip and got into another car and 40 minutes later, I arrived at the actual place to embark. Bananas, and hot tea or coffee were available as we waited for others to arrive. A small bus drove up and 11 other people unloaded for the trip. They were mostly Australians with some UK people and 1 small Japanese woman. Two of the men were young alpha males from Australia who looked just the type for ones seeking adventure, but the majority was women who were of the same ilk.

We were instructed to remove all shoes and change into something that would get wet. I explained that I had hearing aids that could not get wet and I placed them into a water tight box that would be securely strapped to the raft. Apparently the leader thought not having full hearing would be a problem should emergency instructions have to be shouted out, so I was relegated to a larger raft where the form of movement along the river would be one man rowing and it wasn’t me. As I was about to protest, the rower man explained that we would be going through the same rapids, so I kept silent and went along with the program. This meant that during the next 2 hours, I didn’t have to do anything physical except to hold on at the appropriate times. I probably could have talked my way into being with one of the other two smaller rafts, but I was satisfied the way things turned out. Each time we went through some rapids and falls, I got thoroughly drenched.

My only complaint was walking barefoot on pebbly ground and up and down steep rocky banks. When I was young I would go barefoot all summer long and my feet would be leathery tough and walking in cindered alleys was not a problem. But now I get foot massages and an occasional pedicure using a sanding board to remove thick skin. If I ever go again, I am buying some wind surfer footies to protect my delicate lower paws.

Look, at my age, I have nothing to prove about how tough I am. It is all about protecting and preserving my body as long as possible.

We went through 3 water falls, the first being the most extreme. Here is a photo of me going through the 2nd fall. I could have purchased 6 photos for $50 but I chose just one, for $10.
At noon, we stopped for lunch consisting of mushroom soup and fixings for a folded sandwich and some soda. We had to climb up a very steep hill, again with bare feet and I was happy to find my sandals waiting for me in the car that brought me. Everyone else signed up for a full day of rafting and I said good bye and left with my driver to return to the sign-in place where I met the van from Kampala.


We then travelled a short distance to the source of the Nile which flows out of Lake Victoria. I got into a small boat and was taken out into the lake a short distance from the river and the official marker of the beginning of the Nile

The trip back took 2 ½ hours, an hour longer than leaving the city. The traffic was horrific. I decided to stay at the hotel and enjoy the beautiful grounds and spa facilities the rest of the trip.

We took Brussels Air back to Brussels in coach and after a 3 hour layover, enjoyed the trip back to Chicago in a laydown seat in Business class for some much needed sleep.