Departure. New Friends. A New Meaning to Exhaustion.

This is the first of many entries to begin putting this trip into any word form…

300am and my alarm went off. I’m not even really sure why I set an alarm because I didn’t sleep at all; waaay too much excitement. Kristen (Big K) and I arrived at the Charleston airport at 4am. Magically, I had managed to get everything for ten days in my backpack and a small carry-on with a little bit of room to spare. HOLLA!

We were met by our team leader Hope and quite a few of our other team members. This was real. We were going. to. Africa. Katie and Tyler who also work for Palmetto Medical Initiative were there to see us off. We departed Charleston at 6am and arrived in Washington DC to meet up with the remainder of our teammates. We had a bit of a layover there and spent our last moments connecting with our family and friends before our trip halfway around the world.  It was at that point, sitting in the airport, that I actually discovered that my fundraising goal for the trip was not only met but exceeded. My heart was so full at that point that I almost started to cry. “Keep it together Kristen. You haven’t even boarded the plane yet and you’re getting weepy.” Sheesh.

Boarding Ethiopian Airlines, I was blown away; biggest airplane I have ever been on. I was greeted by my own little personal pillow, blanket, socks, toothbrush and the tiniest tube of toothpaste when I got to my seat in the middle isle. Big K was seated directly in front of me and I had another Kristen (Dr.K) in the seat next to me. All together, there were five of us on the trip; three Kristens and two Kristins. There were surely nicknames to be made and fun to be had.

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Big K and I en route to Addis Ababa

Seatbelts fastened, there was no turning back now. All together, we were a team of 41. Undergraduate students, nurses, therapists, doctors, wedding planners, volunteers; people from all walks of life together as teammates and friends on one mission: to change lives.

As hard as I tried to sleep, it was a no go. A little here and a little there. Let’s just say that attempting to sleep on a plane is somewhat comparable to attempting sleep on a piece of plywood in the middle of a room full of screaming children. With a little help from Ambien, I was able to doze off…

As soon as I had actually fallen asleep, a stewardess was tapping me on the shoulder asking me what I wanted to drink and placing this large plate of food on my tray table. Ok fine, bribe me with food and I guess I can’t really be mad. There was an interesting array of rice, beans, crackers, more beans and a fruit cup on my tray. Paired with my traditional airplane drink of choice, spicy tomato juice and it made for a lovely little…err lunch? I wasn’t even sure what time of day it was.

My attention was then drawn to the cute little screen on the seat in front of me. Looking at the map, it seemed like we were about four hours into our trip. THAT’S IT?! Oy vey. Good thing my ADD kicked right in and I took note that Mrs. Doubtfire was one of the movie choices given to us. SOLD.

Next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder again. Time for breakfast? Wait, what? Yep, in the air it was 6:00am. But my body was telling me that it was 11:00pm. Whatevs. If I was going to survive even the trip there then I’d better just go with it. On the bright side, the coffee was killer. Our ETA in Addis Ababa was around 8:00am. Only a couple hours to go. What better way to pass that time than watch another gem of a movie, Happy Feet. There was no hiding my inner child on this trip guys; never.

A gentleman sitting across from Big K and I started talking to us. He lived in California and was en route to Egypt to visit family. He began talking to us about removing judgment from our daily lives; how when we look at someone, we judge them based on their size, sexual orientation, clothing labels, etc. How ironic. Judgment happens to be one of my biggest fears; people constantly judging me on how I look on the outside, the fact that I have dwarfism. Again, my eyes welled with tears. The plane hadn’t even touched down in Africa and I had fallen in love with the people and it’s culture.

Looking across the isle to the window, I could see the sun coming up. Beautiful isn’t a strong enough word to describe what I could see. A horizon line of mountains as we flew over Lake Tana and colors in the sky that one could only dream of.

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Getting ready to land in Addis Ababa. The picture doesn’t do justice to the painted sky.

Twelve hours or so after leaving DC, the wheels touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were all very tired and jet lagged yet happy to be on solid ground. Two hours into our three hour layover I began to feel very dizzy, like I was still on the plane. My fingers were crossed that the feeling would go away once we reached our final destination and I was sure to continue hydrating. We boarded our plane to Entebbe and touched down in Uganda about and hour and forty minutes later. WE MADE IT.

And then there was customs. Oh what a joyful experience, not. They had two officials working the booths. Six lines that merged into two. People pushing and shoving, cutting in line. It took forever. There was a small group of us bringing up the rear of the line and we all took notice to the customs agent allowing people out of the back of the line to cut in front of us. We had a five hour van ride ahead of us. This was not going to fly. Claire, a nurse practitioner and PMI veteran, was not about to keep quiet. (This was the moment I knew we were going to be friends.) She looked that guy straight in the eyes and set the record straight – no more fooling around; just. let. us. through.

$50.00 and an African visa later, we retrieved our bags and headed out to the vans. Roll call. All together, we had 4 vans piled high with our luggage and equipment and 41 people crammed into them along with our drivers and armed guards. What a crew.

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Loading up the vans at the Entebbe Airport.

As we drove away from the airport, only what I have seen on tv and read about became a true reality. Poverty. There was no plumbing or running water; very little electricity other than the occasional glimmer of light coming from a roadside business building. People walking along the roadside balancing water jugs on their heads, huge carts of sugar cane and pineapples to buy. Peanuts, bananas, tomatoes and bottled water. Joseph, owner of the ‘God Is Able’ transportation company we would use throughout the week was seated in front of me and served as a tour guide for us.

Outside of Kampala our van came to a complete stop in traffic and a boy walked up to the window where I was sitting with a container of what looked like wax beans. No, no. Not beans. Grasshoppers. Barf. I passed on that one. Kampala was crowded. Traffic in NYC and Boston is mild compared to what we witnessed. There are no stop signs. No yielding. Just pedal to the medal and if the driver is feeling generous, maybe a blinker. A few of us feared for our lives as passing vehicles came within inches of our windows.

A few hours into the trip we made a pit stop at a local gas station. It was there that we had our first encounter with a latrine. Let me lay it out for you: a bathroom stall, with a door that locked if you were lucky; and a hole in the middle of the cement floor where… well, you get the picture. The smell – whew. Flies. And toilet paper? That was our responsibility. After we had all been introduced to the latrines, a group of us started stretching next to the vans. A few yards away we heard giggles coming from some bushes. Little heads began popping up and down, hands waving and the word “Mzungu” meaning white person, being yelled at us – the kids were adorable beyond words. Then they started copying us. We crossed our arms, they crossed theirs. We stretched to one side, they did the same. I don’t know who had more fun with the game – us or the kids.

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The little kids at the gas station. Hilarious.

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Little kids waving wildly to all of us ‘Mzungus’ outside Kampala.

Back in the vans and it began to drizzle. My head was pressed against the window and I just took everything in as we past villages and the local people. This was real. Next thing I knew, I woke up from a little nap to these tiny voices screaming something out my window. We were stopped and when I looked up on the hill these two little kids were screaming, “Mzungu!” and waving their hands wildly. When I waved back they got even more excited and giggled with delight.

36. Yes, 36 hours of travel later and we had reached our final destination at the Masindi Kitara Hotel, 9:30pm Ugandan time. We made it. Safe and sound. Dinner was all prepared for us and I don’t think I had ever tasted anything so good; pumpkin soup, mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans. A vegetarians dream. Hope gave us our room assignments and we all parted our ways to our rooms – each one of us desperately wanting a shower. I settled for a cold one because I was too tired to realize that the hot and cold water were switched in Africa. Honestly, I didn’t even care. It was a miracle that I remembered not to open my mouth in the shower and I even brushed my teeth with bottled water.

By 11pm I had tucked my mosquito net in and laid my head down to sleep. Only that didn’t happen. The power had gone out and everything was pitch black. My vertigo had returned and everything was spinning. When I got up in the middle of the night to pee, I had forgotten about my mosquito net and made a not-so-graceful exit out of bed onto the floor. Things weren’t looking or feeling that great but I wasn’t about to let it drag me down. Needless to say, exhaustion had taken on a whole new meaning. Tomorrow was a new day.

{As I take my time readjusting to life back here in the states, I will continue to reflect back on my time in Uganda and share the memories.}

Love.

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