Come morning, I sleep in until I can’t possibly anymore. Claw my pillow until every inch of tiredness has been attended to. Then brushing teeth in the damp, green cupboard of a communal bathroom, sitting on a top-loading washing machine that abuts the shower. Then breakfast.

I’m surprised that there’s any left. It’s almost 10h00, and there are piles of eggs and bread still on the counter for toasting. And coffee.

Oh god. coffee.

Proper coffee made from instant powder and milk, not heaps of grinds boiled in water to make a terrible, gritty approximation. I find a large mug and start making some with relish. My standards have dropped, but it makes me so much more easily satisfied. It’s hard to slurp hot coffee through a grin.

Some European lecturer’s African fantasy caught in mid air, transcribed, and danced into a blog – months later – by a stranger’s fingers.

There are transiting travelers everywhere. A Dutch student typing up a thesis or research project of some sort on free trade. Some Germans on a class trip of some kind – anthropology perhaps? The lecturer seems disappointed that some pygmies they had visited were not authentic.

“But weren’t they naked?” the guest house manager asks helpfully.

“Yes, but they were only naked for us. They aren’t naked normally”

“Maybe there are real naked ones further out?”

The lecturer says something disappointedly as he walks out of earshot. I think it’s something about not being sure that there are any genuine pygmies left in that area.

Oh Africa.

I’m sure there is a wider context to this exchange, but this fragment is more than entertaining enough. Some European lecturer’s African fantasy caught in mid air, transcribed, and danced into a blog – months later – by a stranger’s fingers.

I caught you, sir.

I sit down to charge my laptop. Draft a blog post recalling our evenings in the back garden of the house in Gulu. It’s much easier to write now, further away from the place and better able to sift through the memories. Start seeing the connections at last.

I find Saskia up on the roof, quietly writing in her journal. Probably catching up on last night. Lamenting the first half of her bus trip, spent next to an uncomfortably loud man soaked in gin. For reasons I cannot understand, neat gin in sachets is the clear spirit of choice in Uganda. I can’t see the appeal, but the reek of gin is an unmistakable warning hanging about overly social individuals.

As the sun disappears, Saskia and I update journals until it becomes too dark to continue. Then we just sit in the fast-approaching dark chatting. She is wondering about home. About her boyfriend, Gareth, and being able to bring him to understand this place. It’s tough, being here and thinking about home.

But if it’s unreasonable to expect partners to know what this place means to us, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to understand that we are changed.

The context shift is just so large. Expecting someone who wasn’t here and didn’t breathe the burning garbage in the evenings and didn’t ride on the chicken buses to understand is perhaps asking too much. But if it’s unreasonable to expect partners to know what this place means to us, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to understand that we are changed. That we are richer people for having come here. And that we need the space and understanding to process things when we return. The right to be frustrated at never really being able to explain what Gulu and Kitgum were.

Saskia sounds uncertain that Gareth will understand, and I can’t really give any reassuring advice. When you travel, you change. That’s unavoidable.

And the deeper you go, the more to the edge of the world you push yourself, the more profound that alteration becomes. How a changed you brushes up against the rest of the world when you return is never guaranteed. You work it out a day at a time, I guess. Or else you run away again, as soon as you can, to the places with different light, different wind.

The smell of rubbish burning in the evenings.




Categories: Uganda
  • “Maybe there are real naked ones further out?” It made me smile, remember, and shake my head. Thank you for another telling entry from your journals, Richard.

  • Mywalkabout40

    Such a great post, with true feeling and emotion.

  • I had to try hard not to do the head-shake at the time – though I seem to recall that it would have been impossible, given how hard I was trying not to move an inch or do anything to give away how hard I was listening in on the conversation :)

  • I’ve stopped trying to approximate my experience in Patagonia for everyone at home, because I can’t possibly distill the six months into some clean little statement and make a decent summary of how/why I’m different. Last night I just observed that I am different to a friend, and it was the best summary I’ve given so far.

    I am running again, in two weeks. The different light and different winds are calling.

  • I think it’s unfair for anyone to ask that you should ever have to distil your change into soundbites like that. I’ve found that the best friends are able to just make that simple observation of your change, and be OK to sit with that without needing to reduce it.

    All of the best wishes for your running. I hope the light and the winds embrace you as an old friend might.

  • i love this – every time i get a notice of a new article, i drop everything and come here quickly. as always, such a powerful way you’ve presented real emotions and feelings.

  • Judith Odoherty

    I know exactly what you mean by being changed by visiting Uganda. I have recently visited and have come home changed

  • Anonymous

    The change and the restlessness that comes after can be the most disruptive wind blowing through your life. But I like to think that it carries with it a renewed sense of purpose.

    I hope you manage to readjust, but without ever losing the restlessness.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much! (blush).

  • hi richard, i’m here via the matador network, which i’ve also just discovered. and the quality of your words and thoughts just made me want to write back…

    i’m now up in tanzania, settled here, but in my 20s i travelled a lot and always solitary: africa, the old ussr, some other amazing places due in part to the news agency i was working for. what a privilege that was. i think i was driven almost solely by curiosity; i wanted to put myself into situations that were slightly out of my control, be it because i didn’t speak the language, had no fixed plans of how to get around, or wanted to discover an area that was of little “news value”, but a ‘story’ still…because it was there. they were the best days of my life, but every time i came home (england), i found it harder to fit back in, life had inexplicably changed from the moment i first set foot out the door. even now, living out here, it’s so different a life from that of friends and family in the UK that we have no collective points of reference anymore; their eyes glaze over, they are polite but disinterested; i suppose why should i expect them to appreciate or really get it.

    i feel so lucky with this life and to have been part of and witnessed the events i have. as life has since become more sedentary i find my eyes will always remain on the road, despite many ties now keeping me to the one place. thank you for your thought-provoking words, which have me writing at 5am in the chilly kilimanjaro air…

  • ‘Polite but disinterested’ – that is all too familiar. It’s strange now, on the cusp of traveling again in a manner that I know will push me, to think that this is all going to replay itself once more. The frustration at wanting to share, or even just sit in comforting silence with someone else who knows. Who has been.

    I envy you your chilly Kilimanjaro air. Dreams are spun in the quiet times in places like that, where all the world is possible.

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