Well in this hyper-connected world that we live in, the first thing you do in a restaurant (even before ordering an ice-cold beer) is to ask ‘What’s the Wi-Fi password’. However, believe it or not, I am living proof that it is possible to travel for a whole week without even a hint of an internet connection. It does mean – evidently – an orgy of Instagrams, Tweets, Facebook and Whatsapp when you DO make it to a ‘connected’ location, but in between the only thing you have to do is to call home on a treasured ‘local’ phone to reassure everyone that you are indeed alive. And you also end up having stimulating conversations with total strangers in exotic Wi-Fi-free locations and learning about each other, rather than gazing at the latest spam on Twitter. Which is rather cool.
So in the last eight days my deeply suspicious but eternally willing wife (and I) left Kigali, Rwanda. We went gorilla trekking in the Virunga Mountains, which transcended amazement. We then mini-bus hopped to the Rwanda-Uganda border and skipped through with minimum fuss. One East African Safari type terror ride on dirt roads later (with a private driver) we were on an island in South Uganda in Lake Bunyonyi and sleeping in a geo-dome overlooking the lake and hiding behind a mosquito net. There was no door to impede our view of the moonlight. Not for everyone I suspect.
Two days later and 300km further North we were on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park and tracking wild chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge. The next day the highlight of an all-day safari in the Park itself was a two hour cruise on the Kazinza channel that runs between Lakes Edward and George, part of the East African Great Lakes chain. The banks of the channel are strewn with wallowing herds of buffalo, elephants, thousands of hippos, and endless bird life. It was in the park that we gave a lift to three kids who were part of a six person colony travelling on the same motorbike along the dirt roads.
We’ll gloss over the long trip across Uganda from the West to Kampala, and the Bwera bus whose engine exploded. I’m hoping that I will be able to avail of psychiatric counselling when back in Ireland. As for Kampala? We were staying with my wife’s cousin who works there for the NGO Concern. It was great to find a home from home and we met some of her amazing colleagues also the evening we arrived. Still no Wi-Fi though.
Kampala itself is a manic spot. The traffic defies description. Drivers are fearless – the weak get eaten alive. There are acres of furniture lots on the roadside – like an open-air Ikea. And then FINALLY at the Speke club in Munyonyo (on Lake Victoria) we finally managed to get back online and assure everyone that we were indeed alive.
We completed the ‘loop’ back to Kigali three days later, courtesy of Jaguar Executive coaches whose in-bus entertainment system pumped out ‘shake yer booty’ videos, followed by African sitcoms, followed by (worst of all) Gospel choirs at ear-splitting volumes and born again Christians grinning maniacally as they crooned ‘songs of praise and devotion’. It took the bus two hours to cross the border back into Rwanda (it seems Rwanda has higher entry standards than Uganda) and this included a compulsory Ebola test – which happily we both passed.
And along the way thru the Wi-Fi-wasteland we met Sunni and Tommy from Denmark, Venant in Kinigi, the Sabinyo Boys football club (I am now an official patron having bought them a football), Job in the National Park, Roger the Welsh priest and his family in the lodge in Kyambura, the nameless Welsh physio duo who had worked with disabled Ugandan kids for 10 months and were now headed for India via Tanzania. And many, many more memorable people.
Perhaps the nicest touch was when we limped back to the hotel in Kigali where I had been quartered for the initial month in Rwanda. Pretty much everyone – from security men to desk staff to maids to the guy I had endless conversations about Arsenal’s chances this year said ‘Welcome back’. And they really seemed to mean it. I can say it was like coming home, but it felt like a close second. So now it’s final packing time and soon back to the land of Internet on demand. But it was nice to go ‘off the map’ for a while and remember what a blast face to face communication can be. A lesson I hope I remember.
PS Sorry Ballyroan Library for the overdue copy of the ‘Lonely Planet guide to East Africa’ – you’ll have it back next week, honestly…