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On the road again

J. Adam Calaway

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted Jul. 9, 2013

Each day here my enthusiasm seems refreshed with the rising sun. Our small team spends the morning assisting Judy and Lorenda with some knickknack chores around Gulu guest house.

Installing curtain rods, moving computers and putting new chair covers on may not seem like much but, trust me, it is absolutely necessary. As a visitor to a foreign land, unfamiliarity usually equates to a lack of ease. When everything - right down to the bottled water - is different having a soft place to land each night is a Godsend.

(Side note: our scrambled eggs at breakfast were completely white. Not a tint of yellow to be found. I assumed our host was looking out for our health. Turns out, when you feed chicks white corn, the yoke stays white. Not surprisingly, they still taste like eggs.)

We load up and prepare for the trip south. How long have we been in Gulu? Less than 48 hours. I don't know if I've ever had such an eventful two days - the trip up Gulu road, rediscovering joy with Innocent, the ladies at Living Hope singing, meeting Victor and George, the nights talking, the cool evenings filled with music.

We depart the guest house but Simon says the van needs petrol (I feel very British when I write/say petrol). So we stop at a Ugandan gas station. Here in the U.S. gas stations range between palaces or leper colonies. In Uganda, they are usually one of the more stately establishments. It's like someone Xacto-knifed them out of a U.S. travel brochure.

coal truck

Patrons don't pump their own gas in Uganda. Attendants in uniforms come to the window, you tell them how much you want, and then they wash your windshields. This feels very Leave It To Beaver. Or maybe it's just more civilized. I love it. I want this back. Trust me, we need this.

Unfortunately we get to the payout part and since I'm in the front passenger seat, I'm handling the transaction. No one should feel good about this.

Here's the exchange rate - 20,000 Ugandan shillings is worth about $8 U.S. Seems simple until the window is down and money is being thrust back and forth and the attendant is frowning. Don't forget the receipt. How much is the red bill worth? Why is this bill purple and smaller? Divide the total by 20,000 then multiple by 8. How many liters are in a gallon? Attendant is still frowning. Cars are honking. Carry the one. Oh, holy hippo. Here!

I thrust a fistful of brightly colored bills out the window. The amount is either criminally negligent or I just put someone's kid through college. No one says anything and soon Simon is whipping back into Gulu traffic.

I make a comment about being back on Gulu road and Simon corrects me, "This is Kampala road."

Me: "You called this Gulu road when we drove up."

Simon: "Yes, it is Gulu road when you are heading to Gulu. It is Kampala road when you are heading to Kampala."

I love being Simon's self-appointed co-pilot. I'm learning so much.

If the trip up Gulu/Kampala road was exciting, the return trip is mellow. The mysteriousness of the road and the destination is replaced by the realization that seven hours driving through pot holes is exhausting. Steve calls it the Ugandan massage. Steve is an optimist.

We all seem to take turns catnapping. The swerving, potholes and speed humps can't overpower exhaustion.

A few hours pass and we're back at the mid-point café (the same one we used as a bathroom break on the trip up) for lunch. A German delegation is chowing down at the table on the patio. Why do tall German women frighten me?

(Side note: I'd like to point out that this lunch stop seems like a trivial part of the story. It's not. I ate a hamburger. I ate out. In Uganda. Hmm I wonder what's going to happen next?)

Back on the road. Judy decides to pick up some fresh fruit at a region outside Kampala known for having succulent produce. We stop at an open air market and the van is rushed by vendors all selling the same pineapple. Judy ends up buying about 30 pineapples for $15. That's right about .50 a piece for the biggest, freshest and tastiest pineapples on the planet. She also nabs a dozen mangos for a few shillings but the exchange rate is impossible to calculate. Bottom line, they were cheap.

About 45 minutes outside of Kampala we hit road construction. Every time the car grinds to a standstill, vendors - mainly children with fruit and bottled water - walk by the car. Your impulse is to buy more fruit, but the back of he van is loaded down with pineapples.

Road construction gives way to the web of Kampala's never-ending blitz of bodas and a crush of cars that can feel claustrophobic. Simon takes back roads and rubs his eyes.

A sister in arms

We arrive back at Judy and Randy's house before dinner. Time to rest.

In the evening, we have special guests. Solange is the director of communications for Watoto Church and the Watoto Child Care Ministries. She does for Watoto what I do for the Noble Research Institute. Except that she does it under a different set of circumstances. Remember the Ugandan saying, "Everything takes longer and is harder in Uganda."

Solange is thin and strong. Her British accent reveals a woman far from home. We shake hands and then I say, "You're a communications director. You need a hug." We both laugh and embrace. We are kindred spirits.

We spend the evening commiserating about the universal truths of working in communications - the hours, the pressures and the never-ending to-do lists. She asks if I manage to squeeze in a personal life. I almost spit out my pineapple. Turns out, no matter where in the world you work, communications directors experience pretty much the same struggles.

Something odd happened as the night progressed. I watched Solange all through dinner, dipping in out of conversations, distracted by texts and emails. Her bright smile covered a soul tied in knots by constant motion. This is me. I'm watching myself. Is this what I look like to other people? I know it is. I know it.

For the past week, I've been virtually unplugged. My phone has actually been just a phone. Data connection has been severed because of international billing rates. No emails. My focus has been solely in the moment, not tomorrow's worries, not yesterday's problems. But this moment. Here. Now.

Solange and I talk about taking time to reflect. Since I'm now seven days into my first real attempt at reflection, I'm clearly an expert. I've never felt so clear headed, though. The evening ends with warm goodbyes. I know I will see Solange again. Hopefully she will have taken a nap by then, but I doubt it.

As I sit on the edge of the bed, the window open, the music from the club again filling my room, I realize how physically exhausted I am. I left exhausted. I arrived exhausted. And every day has been exhausting. More than that, I've been tired for 10 years, running on fumes.

Tomorrow will be exciting, I tell myself. More farms to see. More adventures. I will feel better. Boy was I wrong.