Travel Summary: 3h 26m boating 34 km, 8h 17m driving 159 km
We left Gulu around 11 AM, following our meeting at the Capable office, and headed West to Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Upon arriving, we drove through the park slowly enjoying the game. Upon reaching the Victoria Nile, we registered and boarded a boat. Our course headed upriver on the Nile (South) to see Murchison Falls. While you can’t go all the way up to the falls, the view is nonetheless, quite spectacular.
While the falls were cool, what really made the boat ride spectacular was all the animals we saw along the way (plus several from our drive).
Of course, we also spent some time bird watching.
It was dark by the time we were back in the car , so we headed directly for our camp on the Victoria Nile River Delta (see the end of our tack on the map above), picking up a park ranger/guard on the way. Here, we pitched tents along the river for the night. The plan was to cook dinner but we couldn’t get the Whisperlite stove started so we settled for a third meal of white bread and peanut butter (and the same in the morning).
Before burrowing into tents for the night we took a short walk around – not too far from camp mind you, as we know firsthand there really are hippos, elephants, giraffes, buffalos, etc. wandering around. I put on mosquito repellent, planning to sleep under the stars. Unfortunatley, just as we walked back into camp the rain started and transitioned into a thunderstorm with lightening to boost. While awesome to see, I chose the tent after all – since there weren’t any stars to be seen. It poured down much of the night but ceased by the time we awoke.
After arriving in Entebbe at around 11 PM, we cleared immigration and met up with Sean, the executive director of Capable, who was going to be driving us around most of the trip. We stayed in the Boma Hotel near the airport and left after breakfast at around 7 AM. We circumnavigated around Kampala on the new highway and then headed North to the Victoria Nile crossing via the New Karuma Bridge, where we met up with Wilson and Dominique, two of the Ugandan Capable team leaders.
From there we drove to meet with three of the Capable groups. The first had graduated from the program last year and had since expanded from 15 to around 60 people. The second and third were groups of 30, the latter of which had only just started at the end of February this year. The format of each meeting was similar. Leaders shared their titles and what they were in charge of and then we expressed our thank-yous. We in turn thanked them for hosting us and encouraged them on the progress they were making. The third group really threw a celebration on our arrival, dancing in a procession to lead us from our cars to under the trees (and a few tarps) where we were to be seated.
After that, the leaders of the group shared. Even after only a month, they were overwhelmingly grateful for the work that Capable was doing there. So much so, that they were requesting that once they graduated (2 years later), they could stay in the program. After the meeting, they insisted we eat a meal they had cooked for us and we, albeit tenuous about the food and its impact on our stomachs, acquiesced and joined in the feast: chicken, goat liver, goat, covey (a green bitter vegetable), potatoes, ground-up sesame, milled white maize (what I call mealie pap, and more). (More than 24 hours later and we are all fine.)
The speakers presented on each of their areas of focus: Health and Sanitation, Agriculture, and Savings & Loans, etc. In the latter program, they had already saved into the community lockbox a total of 2.8 Million Uganda Shilling (UGX) – the equivalent of about 650 USD. A remarkable sum when you consider they are earning about $0.50/day/person. In other words, the bulk of the savings in the lockbox came from personal savings prior to the program, so that, as a community, they could begin saving and loaning out money to each other.
In contrast to a microloan program, where the loan comes from outside contributors, a savings and loan program is entirely funded by the group itself. The interest on a loan out of the community funds is around 3%. The key to success, however, is the group accountability, asking what the loan is used for and checking in each week on how things are going at the same time additional money is saved into the program.
Overall, I was impressed with the breadth of the focus areas Capable was teaching. I had thought their program was only agricultural but was pleasantly surprised to learn how much more they were doing. In particular, I also appreciated the emphasis that both the husband and the wife were involved. The women we spoke with specifically impressed on us how important it was that their roles and efforts were recognized. They were (deservedly) proud of the recognition and I was blessed knowing the difference that something like this was making in the community. Capable had learned in earlier years that having a couple participate made a significant difference to what was accomplished if only the husband or wife were involved, enough of a difference that it has since been a high priority ever since. While the Capable staff is 50% female/50% male, the leadership below the top level at Capable is predominantly women.
After meeting with the groups we headed the remainder of the way North to Gulu, where I was able to pick up a SIM card and some Malaria medication before dinner (Ethiopian) and bed for the night at the Palm Garden Giulu hotel.
In the morning we adjusted our plans and decided to settle for only visiting the Capable office in Gulu (rather than heading to visit the field in Kitgum) before setting off for Murchison Falls. At the office we sat and talked with Dominique and Sean and discussed Capable in more detail, following up on questions like, “what’s not working”, “how do you handle when things go wrong (trauma, alcoholism, clients that go off track, malaria and other health obstacles)”, and their counseling program. By the time we left I believe I had all my questions answered and felt like I had lots of information to bring back and discuss with others I have collaborated on regarding Capable.
Edit: Here’s some additional information that I gathered about Capable that seems best to add here.
Capable’s success rate is around 70%. Meaning 70% of the households that enter the program successfully graduate with income levels above the extreme poverty line. Moving them, for example, from the equivalent of 0.50 USD/Day to ~3 USD per day.
For the new program they are starting in Kitgum, Capable purchased a house for the Gulu staff to have a place to stay when traveling to Kitgum, rather than hiring staff in Kitgum the first year. The approach enables them to be sure that the staff has the appropriate levels of experience required as they launch a new “cohort” in a new area.
I genuinely appreciate Sean’s commitment to truth-telling in the work they are doing. Most importantly, not exaggerating or over-marketing the impact or the data.
When I requested how we could be better as donors, Sean suggested making multi-year commitments (subject of course to unforeseen events). Because he is making 2-year commitments to clients in the form of Capable’s programming, it would be great if he had two-year commitments from the donors as well.
Capable puts effort into A/B testing to verify different approaches and navigate towards optimal impact. In fact, when I asked what he would do with a significantly larger donation, Sean suggested he would spend more time doing studies to understand what worked better and what didn’t.
From the surface interactions we had, Capable is hiring excellent staff. The hires are made directly from the university, frequently in the form of interns initially. And, since there are not enough jobs in Uganda, even for university graduates, this appears to be an unlimited source of excellent employees with training in the specific areas Capable needs for a long time to come.
If you are working for an NGO whose goal is to reduce poverty, it seems that, at a minimum, you should measure changes in income levels and net worth over time. Towards this effort Capable, under Sean’s leadership, is uniquely focused. For each two-year cohort, he knows what the starting income level is and what the end income is. The former is more difficult to determine because it is mostly self-reported information based on what the client claims are sources of income (my experience is that those living in poverty have little to no idea – and certainly no records – of either how much they are earning or how much they are spending. However, following the program, Capable provides an (optional) distribution channel via which crops can be sold. And, if the client leverages this, Capable has a fairly accurate idea of a household’s earnings. From last year, this would be increasing income levels from 0.05 USD to 3.40 USD. A remarkable increase IMO, and, most importantly, one that moves people out of the extreme poverty level of 1.90 USD Purchasing power parity (PPP). For me (and IntelliTect), this is a highlight of the work Capable is achieving.
Sergio has been a dear friend since the late 90s. We have visited him on multiple occasions in Mozambique, and he has stayed with us in our home in Spokane as well. Each of my children has met and spent time with him to the point that he is a welcome family member. In this post, I will outline some of his story.
Elisabeth and I met Sergio in Mozambique during our stay in 1997-1998. We were working for Iris Ministries at the Machava children’s center for orphans and other children whose parents didn’t have the resources to care for them adequately. Our work wasn’t particularly romantic, just buying supplies for the center (sometimes driving to South Africa and bringing them back across the border). Essentially we helped with the day-to-day logistics of what it takes to run a camp of 100-150 children. I say camp because the children were staying in large army tents at the time, about 12 children to a tent. The best part of our job, however, was hanging out with the children, building relationships, and serving as a role model (I realize this is scary in my case) or, as in the case with Elisabeth, taking the time to sit with one of the teens and teaching them to read (in Portuguese none the less). Sergio was one of the teens we got to know.
When Sergio came to the Machava center, he wasn’t an orphan, but his mom died when he was eight, and his dad, who was an alcoholic at the time, had attempted to commit suicide. His dad felt inadequate taking care of his three children, and the extended family let him know he was a failure. Without anyone caring for him and his siblings ( two brothers and a sister), the children often lived on the street searching for food. When his extended family learned of the shambles of their home life, they split the children up amongst his aunts and uncles. However, Sergio’s experience was that living with a family that didn’t want him was worse than living on the street, so he chose the street. Similarly, when he had the opportunity to move to the Chiango government orphanage at the age of 10, his experience was miserable enough that the temptation to return to the street was a constant threat. By the time we met him, shortly after the Machava center had opened, he was about 16-years-old.
Parenthetically, Sergio’s experience in choosing to live on the street even with the opportunity of a children’s center was not unusual. Moving to a center was rough. Even though life came with three meals a day and provided shelter, it also limited a child’s freedom, providing structure and discipline that they didn’t always appreciate. It is a tough transition, and usually, we found that the children living on the street will run away from the center 3-4 times, each with a more extended stay at the center, before really deciding to stick it out and make the center their home.
Sergio stood out to us. By the time we left Mozambique, he had completed all the Machava center offered in schooling. Having started school at the age of 10, he repeated 5th grade a second time, not because he failed, but because there was no 6th grade available. When you consider that the average Mozambiquan adult at that time had only one year of education (meaning they hadn’t learned basic multiplication nor basic sentence structure), 5th grade is still remarkable.
Before Elisabeth and I left Mozambique, we decided that one way we could continue to give was to provide Sergio an opportunity to continue his schooling. Rather than taking 5th grade a third time ( solely because there was no 6th grade offered at his current school), we went with him to look at the various schooling options, and together we selected a private school in Maputo. The school’s location meant that Sergio would have to walk and take public transportation to school.
We wouldn’t just be paying for his schooling, but everything that went beyond what the Machava center provided, including school supplies, a school uniform, books, transportation money, etc. We sat down with him and created a budget, and showed him how he could track the money he spent to ensure he would have sufficient funds. When he tried on his school uniform, we taught him how to tie his tie. (He mentioned this during my trip in December 2021 as I was making a rare appearance in a tie for his wedding. He offered to help me.)
Several factors led us to support Sergio throughout his academic journey. They included his level of integrity, his commitment to bettering himself, and the fact that he wasn’t looking to escape Mozambique if he ever could. Instead, he believed that he could be successful in Mozambique and, therefore, any investment we made in him would grow as he influenced other people.
Continuing with a private school wasn’t trivial for Sergio. Transportation to and from school was difficult. The total commute would take Sergio 2.5 hours each way, frequently landing him back at the center after 11 PM. The attempt at using a bike failed soon after it started because the bike was stolen. By the time he arrived at his first class each day, he smelled from sweat and travel, and his classmates rejected him because of his seemingly poor hygiene and his street Portuguese. He decided to shower when he arrived, but this meant that he missed most of the lecture in his first class. Fortunately, his first-period teacher took the time to ask Sergio what was happening. She accompanied Sergio on his commute to understand the challenges it presented. Her husband brought extra books and class material to the center so that whatever Sergio missed, he could study at home. A different teacher provided insight into the school’s (“proper”) culture to help him fit in. The key, she instructed him, was to do well and study hard. His classmates would respect him for his intelligence. Indeed, things improved significantly once he fit in more. After two years, however, rather than continuing in the same private school, he elected to find a different school for high school that had an easier commute. Not only was the commute significantly more manageable, but he also didn’t have to deal with the snobbery of his classmates nearly as much.
We went back and visited Sergio in 2001 with our 1-year-old son, Benjamin. It was wonderful to see him and observe firsthand how his discipline and grit won out over the challenges. Despite all the difficulties, Sergio was thriving and contemplating what to do upon graduating from high school. Still, challenges persisted. For the remainder of high school, he ended up contracting malaria, and it took him out of school for months at a time when it flared up – totaling 1-2 years. Regardless, Sergio persisted and graduated high school in 2006 at the age of 25. A tremendous accomplishment!
I revisited Sergio in 2010 along with my then 10-year-old son. Sergio was living in his own house, which often had guests. It was such a joy and honor to have someone who previously lived on the streets of Mozambique now hosting for me. We also visited his dad and uncle, both of whom he had restored relations.
The colleges in Maputo were exclusive to the children of government officials and those with wealth, and it was hard to figure out a path forward for Sergio’s education. He tried to enter college for a couple of years but never get acceptance from the schools in Maputo, Mozambique. Eventually, he took a bus two days North to the city of Pemba (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Pemba,+Mozambique) and entered college with tourism as his focus. Like many students in the US, his interest waned, however, so he switched to IT for a short while but found it incomprehensible.
Parenthetically, it was at this time he also purchased his first car, a black Nissan Skyline – albeit without a windshield. Funnily enough, when Elisabeth and I lived in Mozambique we drove a Nissan 4X4 that also lacked a windshield for a time. We named the car Lazarus because of how many accidents it had been in and been resurrected.
Concurrent with his college education, Sergio decided to join the staff with Iris Ministries at a new children’s center also in Pemba. In his job, he was responsible for the myriad of logistics required for an organization with multiple children centers, lots of cross-cultural challenges, along with all the Mozambican legal bureaucracy that was necessary for a successful NGO (non-governmental organization) to navigate. In this new role, Sergio became the face of Iris Ministries in all government interactions regarding licenses, labor, imports, purchasing property, building codes, etc. Sergio oversaw much of the effort. However, a massive bonus from the career is that it afforded him insight into the importance of understanding the law. Then, this same insight spurred him on to the study of law, and he switched majors one more time. Pursuing not only a bachelor’s degree but also his master’s.
I already mentioned that school is far from trivial. Government-required tests can get delayed for no known reason and have no known reschedule date. This cancellation can happen to such an extreme that you miss the opportunity to start class the following year, and no accommodations are made. Class may or may not occur daily, and even what day class will start for the quarter is anyone’s guess. Transportation is always an issue. In addition, books just aren’t available and, when they were, the cost is exorbitant. Portuguese fluency is a constant struggle since prior schooling doesn’t adequately prepare most students for college-level reading and writing. If that isn’t enough, teachers expect bribes for good grades (or even a passing grade), either in the form of money or sexual favors, and without them, you can’t continue schooling. At this time, Sergio has been waiting for more than two years for his final legal practicum to be scheduled, but the professor is unwilling to get around to it. Similarly, his wife, who has completed medical school, doesn’t have any place to proceed to residency, and there is no information as to when that will be resolved. After waiting a year, the previous year’s med-school students are still in limbo.
Sergio has been an entrepreneur for a long time now. Hanna and I noticed this during our visit in 2013. Elisabeth and I seed-funded his first rental property, via which he purchased the land and built a house. He began buying and developing properties whenever he could with that initial start. He had lots of experience with how to do this from his time with Iris Ministries and the children’s center, so he was confident he was doing it correctly and knew how to avoid the “squatter’s rule” by which people could “steal” property by living on it for a period. As an investment, purchasing property was a critical way to fight rampant inflation because the property value also increased. In addition, when he owned property, the money wasn’t liquid, so he didn’t feel obligated to give it to family and friends whenever they asked. For the same reasons, when he had money, he would build, even if it was only a partial build. (This is not to say he wasn’t generous, but instead that it prevented him from being taken advantage of.) The obvious benefit of owning property was that he could build a house for rent. Renting was especially good when the economy was booming – which happened from 2007-2017 because of the discovery of oil off the coast. However, even when the oil companies pulled out because of terrorism from ISIS, Sergio was fortunate to find renters.
Perhaps the most entrepreneurial was to start Sergio’s ventures. When my daughter, Abigail and I visited him in Pemba in 2016, he showed us his carwash business, which was on a thoroughfare through town. He also had a Mozambican “pool hall,” which was nothing fancier than a covered area (open on the sides) with a pool table and bar. Another one of his businesses was a water truck that delivered fresh water to people’s houses, filling up their rooftop water tanks, so they had water coming out their taps. However, the most enterprising is his recent purchase of an old well-digging rig. It was fantastic to see his equipment and how he was adapting and moving parts from old trucks to increase his well-digging equipment’s capacity. A new full-capacity rig runs $100-$200k, and it won’t surprise me if Sergios figures out how to assemble one from parts for a fraction of the cost.
By now, you should have a clear idea that Sergio is exceptional. He works long hours. He is also highly personable and aware of local customs and regulations, treating those in power with the respect they expect to not tread on anyone’s toes. He is masterful at negotiating between conflicting parties and ensuring that bureaucracy is followed when necessary. However, the greatest blessing is that he’s also a great friend, and I love him dearly.
When I visited Sergio in December 2021, I was reminded again of how remarkable it is that he had escaped poverty; in fact, he was wealthy compared to his neighbors and many of his fellow companions from the center. Furthermore, the wealth is more than just financial stability; he also has incredible relationships. Up until this recent trip when there was no one else in his home right before he got married, I always stayed with Sergio when he welcomed others into his home who didn’t have a stable place to stay. His story isn’t just about rags to riches. Even more than that, it is a life richly blessing others. Since Elisabeth and I were married nearly 30 years ago, we have devoted our income to philanthropy (http://intellitect.com/philanthropy), investing in projects that provide wells to hundred, free slaves, build clinics, establish laws to prevent persecution, reduce gender-based violence, and many other projects that fight injustice and poverty around the world. However, of all these investments, I suspect there is nothing that compares to the relatively small financial contribution we made in Sergio’s life that he multiplied hundreds of times over. And, even more so, is the blessing that has come back to us. Sergio is a remarkable man making the world a better place for so many. He’s a dear friend that I love deeply, and my family has adopted him as a son and brother.
On the way to the wedding, Sergio was getting nervous. Isn’t it strange all the stories we make up? Is she going to be there? What if the car breaks down? Etc. In hopes of distracting him, I asked him to share some fond memories of Zita and getting to know her. His first story was about how Zita’s job when he first met her was selling beer on the beach at night as a means of putting herself through school. Zita was paying her own way through med school, working nights on the beach. She decided to stop because she didn’t think it was something Sergio would approve of. Sergio was touched, it really meant a lot to him. I was emotional already with the upcoming wedding, but this was too much, I started to have to hide my tears and suppress my cry. (Those of you who know me know that I don’t cry so I must have been tired or something.)
He also mentioned how he had asked Zita four times to go out with him and each time she had refused, but how she had continued to find ways to hang out with him so that the relationship continued. It was so difficult for Sergio to figure out whether she liked him or not. (She did. 🙂 He also talked about the time earlier that year when Zita’s father had died, and she was getting kicked out of the house. Sergio stepped in and took her to stay with family in Nacala, Mozambique while he helped finish construction on a small property that Zita’s father had left for her. Once they were dating Sergio also started to contribute to Zita’s school fees. Sergio’s own story is a rags to riches story (see upcoming blog post), and Zita’s marrying Sergio seems like a Cinderella story of its own. My emotions were building, and this wasn’t good. I was supposed to be supporting Sergio.
As Sergio started to walk down the aisle for the wedding, we were both crying. I looked away. Next Zita drove up and I helped her out of the car. She looked gorgeous (of course). I took her arm and we stood waiting for everyone to be settled. She too had tears of joy in her eyes and I squeezed her arms multiple times to encourage her. Finally, the music started to play, and we began to walk down the aisle. It was beautiful.
After handing Zita over to Sergio I stepped into the background. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long as I was requested to come forward and sit upfront. The advantage of this was that I got some of the best pictures. The wedding lasted about 1.5 hours and included both a Christian portion and the official state portion. Afterward, were more pictures and the wedding reception. We left the reception at around 9 PM and I drove both the bride and groom through their village honking our horn with the stream of cars behind us. We went to Zita’s house where everyone got out and sang songs. Awesome. The same happened when we finally reached Sergio’s house. The couple emerged from the car and the wedding party greeted them in song. Wow!!
At the end of the evening, I drove the photographer home and proceeded back to Sergio’s house to pick up the bride and groom to go celebrate with Zita’s family. However, just as I approached the house Sergio called and (wisely) told me that they were tired and they didn’t need to go back to Zita’s family. I turned around and made the 30+-minute drive sans GPS, maps, and on dirt roads at night back to where I was going to stay. I finally made it and was ecstatic that I found it. My only consolation in not making it was that the worst case would be sleeping on the beach – which would have been just as good.
I arrived in Pemba, Mozambique on Thursday, December 2, and was greeted by Sergio and his fiancée Zita. It was wonderful to give (and receive) a big hug from him after not seeing him for 5 years. Just seeing his face made the challenging journey all worth it.
We went directly from the airport to Sergio’s house where Zita’s family and Sergio’s family were gathered for dinner. It was warmly familiar to see the same dirt roads leading to his house, exemplary 4-while drive dirt road with just the right degree of fine dry dust to work its way into the engine, gas, and bearings on even the best of cars.
At Sergio’s house, we ate dinner, with everyone sitting around in a circle. It was dark and somewhat formal as the two disparate families came together. Sergio’s somewhat Christian family with Zita’s somewhat Muslim family. Sergio spoke and offered greetings. He then proceeded to introduce me and the impact that Elisabeth and I have had on his life over the years starting with when we met him in 1997 when he was one of the children at the Machava children’s center where we worked in Maputo, Mozambique. He talked about our role in both his education and the personal impact we have made. I was honored. After he spoke, I pointed out that, Sergio was the real hearo as he took the little that we did and amplified it, improving hundreds of lives over the years, whether fellow street children and orphans, family, and neighbors.
After dinner, Sergio and I went back to his house and crashed, waking up the next morning at 5 AM to start errands in preparation for the wedding. I was Sergio’s chauffer, and this was great as it provided a time to hang out and catch up. We visited many of Sergio’s properties and businesses and he updated me on all his entrepreneurial ventures. I was especially intrigued by the progress he has made on the well-digging business and how he is cobbling together a bigger drill. He is quite the successful entrepreneur. In addition, we went to check on the wedding venue several times. It is a beautiful setting located at a university associated built by Iris Ministries (the organization Elisabeth and I worked within ’97-’98) and on a gorgeous beach.
There was a myriad of decisions to make of which everybody had their own opinion. I spent the day reminding Sergio that Zita was the most important person, and we should do whatever Zita wanted. Tradition, family opinions, and social norms be dammed. I kept having to repeat the guidance. 😊
In the evening we went back to the house where some of Sergio and Zita’s family are staying for dinner. We hung out until late and then some close family of Zita’s surprise announced they were coming into town for the wedding after all. Several of Zita’s family indicated they weren’t coming because it wasn’t a Muslim wedding but in the end, they came anyway. Having this particular aunt really made Zita happy even though it meant we were all up waiting for them until 1 AM the night before the wedding. I thought this was unfortunate, but seeing Zita’s joy reminded me of my own advice – Zita is the most important person for the wedding and all that matters is that she is happy.
In the morning we ran a few more errands, getting the wedding car washed and decorated, haircuts, and final odds and ends. (By the way, they seemingly didn’t wash any of the hair-cutting paraphernalia between clients from what I could tell.)
Sergio and I went back to his house (where we were staying) around 1 PM to get dressed. He was getting a little nervous.
Flying to Mozambique was non-trivial. In the end, I chose to fly Delta into Johannesburg, overnight in the Johannesburg airport, and then continue you on with a separate ticket on LAM Mozambique Airlines (LAM). For the most part, it went relatively smoothly but there were a few complications. Firstly, I was carrying a Leatherman to Sergio for his birthday, which meant that even though it is against my religion to check bags, my desire to give him the gift was stronger than my religion and I ended up having to check a bag.
The specific complication was that my flight Delta codeshare with KLM so when I arrived at the airport at 5 AM to check-in (I was accompanying my uncle whose flight was 8 hours earlier), Delta informed me that I had to check my bag with KLM at the international terminal and they wouldn’t be there until 11 AM at the soonest. Well, stink. How was I going to go to a lounge inside security if I couldn’t check my bag? Fortunately, a Delta baggage attendant agreed to hold my bag. Pheww! I passed through security in Terminal A and walked to the International D terminal to find an airport lounge for my now less than 8 hour layover. And, around noon when my work calls were over, I left my bags in the lounge and went outside security, found my (to-be) checked bag after a struggle, and checked it through with KLM. I’m guessing it wasted 1-2 hours, so I sure hope Sergio appreciates it. 😊 Unfortunately, the challenges didn’t stop there.
I knew that Delta and LAM are not partners. What I didn’t realize, what that I could only check the bag as far Delta (or their partners) went – Johannesburg, South Africa. Therefore, while I could stay overnight in the international transfers rather than enter Johannesburg all I wanted, picking up my checked bag required me to go through immigration into South Africa. Arghh!!! (What do people do when they don’t have the requisite passport or visa to enter South Africa?) All I wanted to do was pick up my bag. Why force me to go through immigration. Oh well! I decided to delay till morning. Perhaps I would just abandon the bag.
The night in the international transfer area was rough to say the least. I was prepared to sleep in the airport and even brought a sleeping pad with me. However, what I was not prepared for was the automated announcement blasting every 15 minutes detailing COVID procedures or baggage security protocols. I tried the noise-canceling headphones and loud music approach, but it wasn’t sufficient. I barely slept. And when I was fed up and went to look for a hotel that was supposedly inside the international transfers station, I discovered it was closed. Supposedly misery loves company, but I felt bad for the 5-10 other passengers suffering the same lot (including a family). And, regardless of what the announcement protocol detailed, I wasn’t gathering up all my luggage every time I went to the bathroom or a stretch – even in Johannesburg.
t around 6 AM I decided to go look for my checked bag. I verified there was no other way and passed through immigration. Not surprisingly, my little bag was nowhere to be found in baggage claim. I asked around and discovered the was a lost and found outside the airport somewhere. Upon reaching the location, I asked, and low and behold, they had my bag. 😊 Now I had to figure out how to find LAM airlines and check the bag. I, on the other hand, didn’t need a boarding pass because I had already checked in online. No such luck! Checking in I was informed that firstly, my COVID test didn’t have a QR code on it making it suspect. And secondly, my passport didn’t have the requisite visa. Sergio had assured me this would not be a problem when I arrived in Pemba because he knew all the officials there and was sure any issues could be worked out. Of course, I wasn’t in Pemba yet and now it was questionable whether I would ever arrive there. I shuttled around to various LAM desks and eventually, using the right passport and yesses and no’s, they checked my bag. Phew!!
The next challenge occurred when I landed in Maputo. They insisted I have an invitation letter and a hotel reservation. Furthermore, I no longer had Internet so I couldn’t make a hotel reservation or even pull up my return flight that showed I wasn’t permanently moving to Mozambique. (Why would I, why wouldn’t they love it if I did (from an economic perspective, and why would a return flight mean anything, especially in a time when I can cancel and change flights?) To make matters worse, communication at this point was in my broken Portuguese or their, even worse, rudimentary English. Fortunately, my flight to Pemba was delayed by 3 hours as I would never have made the 45-minute connection that was scheduled. They set up a hotspot from one of their personal phones, which allowed me to connect with Sergio. They talked with him over the phone and he sent over an ID document of some kind. Finally, after I got to know them all just by hanging out with the immigration folks waiting for things to get settled, they issued me a visa and I was allowed in. I even had time to go get a bite to eat and connect to the Wifi and re-establish communication with the outside world. The final flight into Pemba was eventless and it was wonderful to give Sergio a hug. It made the ~30 hours trip all worth it and water under the bridge. I had really missed him and it was fantastic to meet his future bride, Zita, as well. The challenges of getting home given that Europe had already shut down their border to Subsaharan Africa, I was already convinced that this trip was well worth it.
At about midnight on Friday, November 18 I picked up my rental car and took the advice of the rental car agent. This had me head South and then West rather than my intended Eastly drive. I drove for about 2 hours and then pull off on a side trail and parked in a riverbed at about 2 AM to take a nap.
At about 7 AM I awoke and continued my journey South stopping occasionally for pictures. My impression is that Serbia is a beautiful, mountainous country. It is winter here now with some fall color still on the trees, but I expect I didn’t get the full sense of the beauty, but I expect that the other three seasons are quite spectacular.
At around 8:30 AM I reached a holiday town called Zlatibor where I had breakfast. Specifically, I had yogurt and komplet lepinja (thanks again to my rental agent friend’s recommendation). He mentioned a second dish – lambs blanket?, but I didn’t eat again until I arrived back in Amsterdam late morning on Sunday so that will be something saved for the future.
From Zlatibor I headed West to the Tara National Park, specifically to Banjska Stena (view). I hiked about a mile after parking and then had a spectacular view across the Drina River into Bosnia Herzegovina.
After visiting the Zaovine Dam, I noticed a second “stena” (wall) on the map that was in the general direction of where I wanted to go so I had Google map it out for me. The road was fairly steep, zigzagging back and forth until, well, until it simply no longer seemed prudent to continue in my Serbian economy rental car manufactured in Romania. I reluctantly turned around, even abandoning my inclination to hike when I couldn’t drive.
After leaving the Tara National Park I headed to the border with Bosnia Herzegovina. Shortly before reaching the border, I picked up a hitchhiker. He knew the work “Thank you” which was more than I could say, especially since I couldn’t even identify the language he spoke. The border crossing went smoothly, and I proceeded East into Bosnia Herzegovina (stopping briefly to purchase a car charger for my phone). However, it wasn’t long before I realized that my hitchhiker friend was perhaps expecting me to go all the way to Sarajevo, something I just didn’t have time for. Instead, I turned around and took him back to a small village before heading to the only interesting thing within a few miles, the Dobrun Monastery. A beautiful retreat that was seemingly undamaged by the war.
I re-entered into Serbia at the golden hour (just before 3 PM) and you could tell it was going to be dark soon. Figuring my plane didn’t leave until 6 AM the next day, I still had more than 12 hours to explore. I decided to drive back up towards Belgrade and then detour East into Romania, crossing the border at around 11 PM in a thick fog.
At Romanian immigration, the border guard asked me where I was going. I replied that I didn’t know, what would he recommend? After a brief hesitation, he replied, Ukraine! Wait, what? You’re the Romanian border guard and you are suggesting I just cross through Romania and go to Ukraine (about a 16-hour drive)? I’m not sure if he was implying that he didn’t like me and, therefore, didn’t want me to stay in Romania, or that he didn’t think enough of Romania that there would be much for me to see, but I suspect it was the latter. I drove North along the border, took a picture of a church before evaluating what to do next. It was around this time that my gas light came on and I had to decide whether to venture further into Romania to get gas or turn around and drive back into Serbia even though that was a longer drive. I decided to head further East into Romania. The first gas station I came to was unattended, and I couldn’t get my credit card to work. Ughh!! I continued onto the next town Oravija where I found an open gas station and refilled my tank. Good! (It reminded me of the Blue’s Brother’s quote, “We have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.“)
I crossed back into Serbia around midnight and headed for my last destination – Belgrade. Arriving there at 2 AM, I determined I could see some of the highlights before driving back to the airport and for my rental car return appointment at 4:30 AM and my flight out at 6 AM.
By the time I boarded the plane to Amsterdam I had driven 500-600 miles in 28 hours including my 5-hour nap along the river. I was tired and ready to head home but pleased with how much I had seen in my short visit to Serbia.
I flew Delta from Spokane to Prague on November 16. There wasn’t much remarkable about the flight except for my connection through Seattle. I had a 1.5-hour layover in Seattle but my flight from Spokane arrived a little late such that by the time my plane arrived at the Seattle gate, my departing international flight was already boarding – and from a different terminal. To accommodate the shorter connection, Delta decided to surprise me and meet me on the jet bridge as I walked off the plane. They greeted me by name and informed me that they were standing by to drive me to my connecting flight. I was puzzled but followed the Delta agent downstairs onto the tarmac where there was a white Porsche waiting for me. After taking my picture, the agent invited me to jump in before she drove me to my departing gate and escorted me up to my boarding flight. Wow!! It was definitely over the top. While I do have some status, it is a ways from the top Diamond Tier Sky Medallion level.
I arrived in Prague, Czech on Wednesday, November 13 around mid-day meeting up with a few other the Update Conference Prague 2021 speakers who arrived at the same time. After showering, I headed to the speaker’s dinner, catching a tram (after a failed attempt on the wrong side of the street). After dinner, I took the underground rail.
Thursday morning, I presented my An In-Depth Look at Programming With Nullability talk to a room of approximately 300. Afterward my talk I took an hour-long bus ride to get my COVID-19 test. A negative test is required for travel to both Serbia and back to the United States. The bus went well but it was strange because unlike on the tram and underground rail, there was no machine for purchasing a ticket, just validating one. I made a mental note to be sure to ask about from my conference hosts. The ease of the trip warranted the following tweet regardless.
For me, the key to public transportation is Google Maps (I assume other providers are similar). It makes traveling on public transportation so much simpler than maps and paper schedules. Yikes!!!
Unsure of the exact COVID-19 test requirements I took the PCR test with results expected within 24 hours. The cost was $40 – at least a third the cost of similar tests in the United States.
On my return I boarded a bus in the opposite direction but after a couple stops everyone got off. Hmm? The bus then drove a little further and then parked on the side of the street. I stayed put for several minutes before getting up and asking what’s up? The response was in Czech, and I didn’t understand a word. Eventually, I figured I needed to walk back to an earlier stop and, after waffling which side of the street to wait, I caught the next bus in the same direction as before. This time some bus “officials” boarded the bus and asked me for my ticket. Of course, I still didn’t have one and they informed me that the bus is not free. Ughh!! They ended up charging me what I presume was a fine of $40 (normally it would be less than $2). Oh well! It was a learning experience.
Friday was my Modernizing C# Guidelines talk which has a similar audience size. Afterward, I went back to my room and crashed having not slept more than 3-4 hours since arriving. After showering and packing up, I took an Uber to the airport where I caught a direct flight to Belgrade, Serbia. The flight was on an ATR 72-500, which has the luggage loaded in the front between the passengers and the pilot. Different!
I landed in Belgrade around 11 PM. Upon finding the right rental car agency (which took me 45 minutes of wandering around), I learned that, although the daily rental cost was only $22, there was an upcharge for after-hours service of ~$40 dollars, totaling $80 for me since it was both pickup and drop off. Ughh! At first, I decided to cancel but, after thinking about it and realizing that without a car I would be limited to only seeing Belgrade, I decided to splurge and rented the car anyway. And, given that I wanted to crisscross Serbia, traveling over 500 miles, this was by far the cheapest way to do it.
Yesterday morning Benjamin and I awoke at 4:15 AM and scheduled our Uber for 5:20 AM. We tried scheduling the night before but couldn’t get the app to work. After getting ready we went into the living room for a wonderful home-cooked breakfast with our host (Marietta) before departing. Marietta had quite the hospitality gift, cooking as a great breakfast again and then ensuring we were all set. She gave us a handwritten message.
The trip to the airport was as it should be – uneventful. I was amazed, however, that there was no direct route from Lima. There were lots of traffic lights and twists and turns. You would think that in a city of over 11 million people there would be expressways going directly to the airport and helping with traffic in general – especially since there is no railway/subway system. ☹
Our flight to Cusco went smoothly as well. While I was in the back corner, seat(literally) I was content. In fact, I was grateful to have a windows seat as it afforded me some spectacular views of the mountains surrounding Cusco, mountains that we would be hiking in a few days on our trek to Machu Picchu.