The flight from Amsterdam to Entebbe (pronounced in-teb-a), Uganda, is about eight hours. I remember very little of it.
I don't remember flying over Luxembourg. I don't remember flying over Italy. I don't remember flying over the Mediterranean Sea.
I vaguely remember Steve rousing me awake to see the snowy peaks of the Alps, which were so tall they were level with the plane. This was beautiful and disconcerting all at the same time. Mountains and planes should not exist at the same height. It's wrong.
But all of this wasn't enough to fully pull me from slumber. A quick side note: those traveling to Africa are supposed to sleep on the first leg to Europe, then work on the second leg into Africa so their bodies adjust to the time difference (eight hours). I did it the opposite way. Good job, Adam.
The rest of the flight was uneventful except to say all the jokes about airplane food become less and less funny. After four meals of what the Dutch consider "edible," I questioned my stomach's ability to hold another round, the necessity of this trip and my life's purpose.
The plane had a brief layover in Rwanda. Yes, the one with the hotel. No, we did not deplane, we stayed seated. They cleaned. Others boarded. We got the heck out of Dodge.
It was about a 37-minute flight into Entebbe. We went up. We went down. No meal service. Thank God. We land at about 10:30 p.m.
The Entebbe airport offers first-time visitors a jolt of reality. The slick, polished feel of Western airports is replaced with the utilitarianism of a country recovering from devastation. The buildings were square, plain and painted in the African palette - oranges, greens, greys and browns. The second realization is that after buildings are constructed, they are rarely updated.
The recycled, chilly air of the plane is replaced with the thick and moist African atmosphere.
Most of the country does not have air conditioning. Why would they? For all the extremes of this society's history, the environment is consistent - usually around 75 degrees.
For those not prepared, it takes time to adapt. I started sweating immediately. I have yet to stop.
Customs was anticlimactic. In my mind, this is the point where they search my bag, find that I've unknowingly carried something into the country I shouldn't have (peanut butter crackers?) and haul me off in handcuffs, while I scream to my fellow travelers to tell my family I love them. (Did I mention that malaria pills have side effects?)
What actually happened was that I paid my $50 (the bill must be from 2006 or newer), showed my passport and shot records, had all my fingers electronically scanned into the Uganda database and went to baggage claim.
Customs is also where I received my first mosquito bite. Fifteen minutes in Uganda, I thought, and I already have malaria.
After gathering our bags, we walked through the final security checkpoint (hauling four suitcases each) and into a holding pen, where drivers awaited their visitors.
Like most big cities, the crush of humanity is always tangible to me. Lots of people. Small room. My personal space bubble is always burst. I initially seize up, then relax into the chaos.
One important side note: apparently a ginger in Uganda is something of an anomaly. No matter the country, when human beings see something different, we stare. Or we try not to stare and give that sideways look. I received a lot of sideways looks.
It's here that our party met Joe.
Like most Ugandans, Joe is young, genuine and eager to help. He hugged each of us (a universal greeting for Ugandans) and helped load our extensive luggage into a Watoto bus.
Joe is second in command for Watoto's logistics department, which, after a few stories about Uganda bureaucracy and stalled shipping containers, I came to realize is like being second in command of Mission Impossible.
Joe wears shorts, a polo short with a popped collar and one of those smiles that never fades. He's the young Ugandan professional. I liked him immediately.
Steve and Joe catch up throughout the 30-minute drive to Kampala (pronounced come-paula). Steve only has a few weeks to work, and he'll use every minute. While they chat, I'm struck by a few things. There are no street lights. You might assume that, because of the lack of electricity in many areas, but, seriously, I have never known darkness like this.
While difficult to see, the roadside markets offer a glimpse into Ugandan life. They are virtually nothing more than shanties or deteriorating buildings, but they offer every possible ware from local cuisine to cell phones.
The strip from Entebbe to Kampala is bustling with night life. It's Saturday night. Bars and clubs, which are often marked with Christmas lights, are popular gathering places, usually on the edge of the road. (Ugandan traffic is also something to behold, but I'll cover that later.)
Kampala is a web of roads. Direction matters less than the fact that you're constantly rolling up and down hills. The whole city seems built in a series of valleys that lead to the edge of Lake Victoria.
The main road leads us to an unmarked offshoot, which leads to another unmarked offshoot, which leads to a dirt road where we find our home base, a two-story villa that belongs to our hosts, Randy and Judy, Canadian transplants who have an obvious passion for their work and Uganda. Randy serves as the director of sustainability for Watoto. He's a bright and energetic man in his 50s with short-cropped grey hair. Together with Judy, they are welcoming, gracious hosts.
As with most larger Ugandan homes, it is surrounded by a 12- to 14-foot wall with barbed wire across the top, a gate and an armed guard. The sight is initially shocking. Inside the gate is a small manicured lawn, hanging hedges with purple flowers and stone walkways.
We trade greetings with our hosts, unload and shower (making sure not to drink any water). It's past midnight, and exhaustion overwhelms us all.
My room is on the second floor - beautiful and spacious with vaulted ceilings. It's my first night sleeping under a mosquito net. I feel like a bagged fish, but I'm too tired to care. It's also the first night I've slept without a fan in two decades, so I'll be depositing a little sweat equity. It doesn't matter, because whatever Uganda takes, it also gives back.
With the window open, the chorus of frogs, birds and rustling trees combines with a soft breeze to lull me to sleep. The sounds are present, but there is a sense of stillness and quiet that I have rarely experienced.
At about 1 a.m., the patter of rain begins, providing the steady rhythm to nature's concert. If you know my history, you know that rain represents serious suffering in my life. Yet it's different here. There is peace. It's Uganda's first gift to me. I hope I can pay her back.