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July 28 – Last Day w/ Abayudaya

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We started our last day in Mbale with a wonderful breakfast from Rachael, Halima and crew. I must say that I really enjoy the food here, especially the vegetables, beans and the chicken. I am looking forward to more food on the street in Gulu, Deb says it is really good there. Noah is excited about the bbq on the street as well. He has enjoyed the chicken the few times he has had it. After breakfast we headed to Shabbat services at the temple. I haven’t been to temple this much ever, but it was a different experience for some reason. I might actually go to temple if I lived here since it is the center of the community.

The children had a wonderful day playing with the other kids here. Drew met a niece of the Rabbi named Dinah and they became fast friends. Noah was also extremely welcomed by Dinah and they all played from the moment they met. As we are preparing to leave Dinah just wrote a note to Drew telling her how much she will miss her and how beautiful she is. She even stated that she loved Noah as well. Ilise also got a note from one of the small children that we gave some clothing to. Ilise seemed like she was ready to cry just looking at the note.

During the day Deb and I worked with everyone involved in the U-TOUCH Center to get budgets for each component. We discussed the furniture, the network, the electrical and we put together a complete budget. The budget for the entire installation is going to be less than $2,300 to establish a lab for 20 computers. This project will be one filled with love and passion that can change the landscape of this community. The ongoing costs to maintain the center will be less than $600/month, of which the community will pay $225/month for one trainer. U-TOUCH will fund the internet and our family has committed to supporting a second trainer. This will be great for everyone and will allow our kids to stay connected to this community moving forward. Drew is especially excited about finding ways to help here by sending shoes and clothing. According to the Rabbi it is better to send money and let them use it in the community than sending goods. The goods are taxed upon entry to the country so sending goods is not the best option.

Tomorrow we are planning to leave around 8 AM for a 6 hour drive to Gulu on some crazy roads. Should be an interesting trip.

‘Til next time …..

July 28 – Another day with the Abayudaya

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We awoke early and went for a walk in the neighborhood where the Abayudaya live. We walked past home after home built out of bricks and mud with tin roofs. The children were barely clothed and just sitting around playing together. We passed a few homes that were much more lavish, but still nothing that would compare to any home in a normal US town. To say this is an example of poverty is an understatement. The scary part is that we have been told that it is worse in the northern part of Uganda, where we are going next.

When we returned we were asked to visit with the Rabbi, who had invited his team to come to discuss how to set up the U-TOUCH Center. We had a carpenter, Arthur, and electrician, Alex, the network guru, David Armstrong and the proposed trainer, Saddat. We talked about how to set up the systems and what they needed to be successful. We asked everyone to come back with budgets so we can secure the money from the non-profit supporting the community. Everyone is extremely eager to get this project started and we are excited as well. Drew and Noah are so happy here and they are meeting some wonderful children.

The roads are all dirt and the Haddasah Primary School is about 1.5 miles down the hill from the Abayudaya Guest House. After meeting with the Rabbi and before lunch we decided to head to the Primary School to look around. The walk was the same way we had gone earlier and we passed many of the same kids. When we got to the school they were letting everyone out for the end of the semester. We were able to see all the buildings and took lots of pictures. Most of the important lessons were painted on the outside walls of the buildings since they don’t have text books. To imagine that this situation exists in this day and age is amazing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Mbale getting some things for the workers at the Guest House and waiting for the driver to deliver our bags. We kept talking with the driver and he was scheduled to arrive at approximately 5:30 PM. He had left Entebbe at 10:30 AM, that is a long day!  After getting the bags the driver was planning to drive back to Kampala that day. The interesting part about getting the bags was the moment when our driver, Sampson, tried to start the van we were driving and the battery was dead, ouch! I had visions of being stuck in Mbale for the night, but moments later someone came with a new battery and we were off to the Abayudaya community for Shabbat services.

The services on Friday evening were extremely enjoyable. There was lots of singing and everyone was engaged, even the children. The community is very cohesive and seems to be connected in a way you don’t see in the US. The families are all together and they help each other in every way. There are large families and there are children supporting their parents since the parents can’t do it anymore. The education level is higher than expected for selected individuals, as we have always discussed at U-TOUCH, brilliance is equally distributed; opportunity is not!

With help and support we can help these people improve their lives, with such a small investment. All of us can make a difference, and it doesn’t take much.

‘Til next time ….

July 27 – The Abayudaya

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We arrived at the Abayudaya community on Thursday early evening and were taken to the guest house. For this part of the country this place is extremely nice. The Abayudaya are used to housing people from all over the world and we have been treated like family since we came here. The guest house is managed by Isaac and the cooks/house women are Rachael and her daughter Halima. They have been so nice and they are amazing cooks (according to me and Deb, not sure Ilise and the kids are enjoying the food so much).

The night we arrived Deb and I were able to meet with Rabbi Gersham, who runs the community. He was very excited to have Deb here and talk about opening a U-TOUCH Center on the campus. They have a building that is only used from 9-12 every day. So, the Center could be open from 8-9 in the morning and from noon to 8 PM at night. The Rabbi also talked about a young man named Saddat who could be the trainer for the center. It turns out that Saddat is Raechel’s son and very excited about this opportunity. We had a conference call with Danielle in San Francisco about the concerns that they have about the center. Danielle works for the non-profit org that promotes the Abayudaya in the US. They had tried to build a center a number of years ago and it failed. She wanted to make sure we didn’t make the same mistakes.

Rabbi Gersham said he would ask the carpenter to come in the morning and when we arrived in the morning to discuss the project the carpenter and the electrician were there. We discussed the layout of the center and how we would use the space and they promised to get back to us with budgetary estimates. It turns out that they had estimates the same day. This place is set up for success!

Thursday Afternoon; July 27 – Kampala to Mbale

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We planned to leave Kampala at 9 AM and spend some of the day in Jinja, but with the baggage situation we didn’t leave until about noon. We met our driver, Issa, and he was very nice. It is a 4 plus hour drive to Mbale and we needed to be there by 5:30 PM. So, not much time left to spend in Jinja. The drive was extremely interesting. The traffic in Kampala was extremely heavy and it took us some time to get into the suburbs of the city. Now, when I say suburbs they weren’t what any person I know would consider suburbs. They were mud buildings with some store fronts and lots of people mulling around. We even saw a cow in the middle of the street at one point.

We saw some amazing sights, including a Bota Bota (a motorcycle that transports people and things) with a box of chickens attached on the back. That was amazing but I didn’t have my camera out. I wish I could have gotten that picture!

We did stop in Jinja to see the Bujagali Falls, but they recently built a dam below the falls and the falls are now a lake. Progress sometimes destroys the most beautiful natural environments. Deb had some pictures of the falls from a few years ago and they looked amazing, but not any more L

We stopped for lunch at The Jinja Nile Resort, which is a high-end resort, but the restaurant was only serving a buffet of local foods, not something that Ilise or the kids would eat. We ended up stopping at a grocery store and getting some basics and then stopped along the highway for grilled chicken and beef on a stick. Noah and I ate the chicken and I had the beef. They were actually really tasty. Noah loved the chicken and I am sure he will try it again.

We continued our journey and arrived in Mbale, which is the town where the Abayudaya Jews have they community. I had heard about this community through my involvement with U-TOUCH, but since hearing about them I have run into many people that have told me about them. Once we got into Mbale the roads were getting a bit less comfortable, lots of potholes. Little did I know that we were just beginning the portion of our journey on the real roads of Uganda. To say that they are not paved is an understatement. We must have driven for 3-4 miles on a road that no car in the US would dare go on without 4-wheel drive, but these guys do it everyday.

It turns out that after speaking with Sampson, Issa’s boss and our driver to Gulu, that our drive from Mbale to Gulu on Sunday will take us on roads like that for over 100 KM, OUCH! That is going to be a long drive.

Thursday; July 27 – Picking up the Bags

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Well, this day started off very early after a late night with Joshua and Deb talking about U-TOUCH and the challenges we are facing, but that is not the story. The story was my ride back to Entebbe Airport at 4:30 AM to pick up our bags before our drive to Mbale that morning. We were promised that our bags would be at the airport at 3:30 AM and they promised that they would deliver them to us. I told them that at this point we didn’t trust them and we would pick the bags up ourselves. So, Amin Mohamed picked me up at 4:30 AM to drive to the airport in the dark. Remember I said I never wanted to make that drive again in the dark!

So, we arrive at the airport at 5 AM and the person who spoke with us in Kampala from Turkish Airlines, Stephen, was walking out of the airport to go home. I asked if he could take us to the baggage area to help us find our bags. He just said go downstairs and ask the person in baggage handling and they will get them. By now I am sure you have realized that our bags were not at the airport, Turkish Airlines messed up again, and Stephen just wanted to avoid a conversation.

I arrived back at Joshua’s house at 7 AM and Joshua was awake. We talked for a few minutes and he took the business card from me for the Director at Turkish Airlines. Joshua was able to get Erbil on the phone and the conversation did not go extremely well. Joshua was very angry and was ready to jump down this man’s throat. After Joshua threatened him with lawyers getting involved we agreed to meet at their offices at 9 AM. I headed to Kampala with Joshua and we went straight to the Turkish Airlines offices. Before entering I told Joshua that he was the bad guy and I was going to be the good guy. Erbil was waiting for us and was actually very apologetic. He offered to compensate us significantly for our lost luggage beyond the original amount given the day before and was willing to upgrade us to first class on our trip home. Only problem is that we are not taking Turkish Airlines home from Nairobi.

Anyway, the solution was for Turkish Airlines to ship our bags to Mbale the next day so we could leave as scheduled. This plan actually worked out extremely well because the car that we were taking to Mbale was just big enough for the bags we had. If we had received our bags that day it would have been a miserable drive for all of us to Mbale. I truly believe that everything, I mean everything, happens for a reason. In the end we lived in a couple of sets of clothes for 4 days and those clothes were a bit over worn, but in the grand scheme of things, not a big deal! Life is good!

‘til next time …..

Day 2 in Kampala

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All I can say is that anyone in the US that complains about traffic has never been to Kampala during rush hour! We started our day nicely at the Monyunyo Hotel on Lake Victoria and saw some amazing birds, especially this stork. There was a field at the hotel filled with these birds that remind me of an old grandpa!

After leaving the hotel we had some fun with Turkish Airlines. We arrived at their offices hoping to get some resolution to getting our bags back in our hands and get some funding to replace some of our clothing. It was an interesting dialog not worth getting into, but in the end they provided us with $300 for our inconvenience. In addition, I will need to go to the airport tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM to pick up our luggage since they won’t promise it to us until late afternoon.

We are planning to leave at 9 AM tomorrow morning so that won’t really work. I mentioned in a previous post that I never want to take that ride to the airport in the dark again, but it is going to happen tomorrow. At least it will just be me and not the whole family.

Once done with the airline fun we headed to another mall to get some clothing and some lunch. We were accompanied for the day by Amin Mohamed again and he was very helpful. He will be the one taking me to pick up the luggage in the morning.

We met with Deb in the afternoon and we were able to meet Oloya Patrick for the first time. I have been communicating with Patrick for months now via Skype and it was nice to meet him in person. When we picked him up our next project was to go to the local market to purchase 13 pairs of soccer cleats for the U-TOUCH team in Gulu. Well, that was an experience!

I have been to many flea markets in my life, but this shanty market was amazing! It was booth after booth of everything you can imagine, with a floor of mud. We went to buy clothes at the mall, we should have gone to this market, this is where all the locals shop. We purchased the cleats slightly used and paid about $115 (285,000 Shillings) for all of them. That is less than $10 per cleat. Not sure where they all came from but not asking 🙂

Tomorrow I head to the airport early and when we return we will be off to Jinja, the source of the Nile. From there we will travel to Mbale, the home of the Abayudaya Jewish community. Not sure I will be able to blog during our stay there so I won’t be back online until Sunday or Monday.

‘Til then …..

Safe Arrival Minus Baggage

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Well, we spent over 19 hours on planes from JFK airport in NYC and made it to our destination, Uganda, safely. The only challenge is that Turkish Airlines forgot to put our luggage on the plane with us. Not a big issue if they have multiple flights a day, but that flight only comes in once every two days! So, no luggage until Thursday.

We did something intelligent before leaving, we packed a carry-on with enough clothes for a day or so. That allowed us to get through today without any hiccups, but tomorrow is a different story.

The trip from the airport to Kampala at 5 AM was one I will soon not forget. For those that know me well, I am not a good passenger. Add that fact to being in a strange country where they drive on the wrong side of the road with an aggressive driver on a two lane road with no median and you have discomfort! To say the ride was a bit stressful is an understatement. There were motor scooter and bike riders out at 5 AM and I could only imagine hitting one of them. Going back to the airport in 2 weeks will be during the day time, which is very good news!

We are staying with a friend, Joshua Kyallo pictured with Ilise and the kids. Joshua has been extremely generous allowing us to stay at his home just outside of Kampala. Joshua has a young man named Alex who watches the house and will do some laundry for us, but shopping might be on the agenda tomorrow for some new clothes!

Our day in Kampala was very simple today, with lunch at the Serena Hotel in the center of town. We were able to secure a local cell phone for communications and exchange some currency. Joshua hired a driver, named Amir Mohamed, to drive us around town. He took us to a mall to get some additional clothing and then to a local market by the National Theater.

Our kids love shopping at the local markets, but I must say that these markets seem like they could have been anywhere in Africa. I am looking forward to seeing the rural portions of the country and what those artists are able to create.

Tomorrow, Deb Plotkin will be coming down to join us and tour Kampala. We will be spending some time at the Turkish Airlines office trying to rectify the situation with our baggage, should be fun! If we get our bags on Thursday morning we will be leaving for Jinja (the source of the Nile River) and then off to Mbale, the home of the Abayudaya Jews before the end of the day. I will look to add some posts before we leave Kampala and head to the east and then northern parts of the country.

Heading to the Airport

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Well, we are waiting in Queens for our taxi to take us to JFK for our flight. It was a great day starting with breakfast with an old friend, Miles Rose. I haven’t seen Miles in close to 15 years and it was nice to see him. He was extremely generous with his connections, as always, and hopefully something will come of his efforts to support our mission in Uganda.

Our first leg of the trip is about 10 hours from NYC to Istanbul where we will try to get some sleep, but not too much sleep. We will be arriving in Uganda at 3 AM local time and will need to adjust to the time zone differences. We will see how everyone fares on that front. We will be spending our first two nights at the home of Joshua Kyallo, someone very close to U-TOUCH and someone who has become a personal friend. I look forward to seeing Joshua, seeing his home and spending some time touring Kampala.

Next post will be from somewhere outside of the US!

‘Til then….

Let the Games Begin!

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Peaceful morning on Swan Lake from the kayak

Well, if our summer stopped right now and we went back to our life in San Diego I could easily say it was an amazing summer. Kids had a great time at camp, the weather was wonderful, we got to see lots of friends and family, but I believe the real amazing part is just about to begin!

I am in NYC at my mother-in-laws apartment with Ilise and the kids and they are still asleep as I write this post. Later today we will head to Queens for a good-bye dinner with Hope and Marty (my mother-in-law and her boyfriend) and then off to JFK for the beginning of our journey, a midnight flight to Istanbul. Once in Istanbul we take a flight to Kigali in Rawanda and then a short puddle jumper to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. I believe we will be picked up by a taxi, since it will be 3 AM local time, OUCH! Some time adjustment will be needed by most upon our arrival in Kampala.

This trip is something I have been looking forward to since I met my wife, Ilise, and probably even earlier. When we first met she was planning an African safari with her sister. We met in June of 1997 and in September she left for South Africa. On her trip she would fax me notes about her travels and what a great time she was having. Today email seems a lot more efficient! I had always dreamed of going on a safari and now it is upon us. All of the nature photography I have taken over the years has been so enjoyable, and how much better can nature get than Africa? I will let you know upon our return 🙂

We have some amazing volunteer work to do in Uganda before we get to our safari. The work with U-TOUCH is something I believe will be life changing for me and Ilise, and especially our kids. There are so many lessons to learn in life, but appreciating what you have is high on my list. Time to do our little part to make the world a better place.

‘Til next time.

Rain!

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Well, we have been in NY for exactly a month and today is the first real day of rain since we arrived. I must admit, even though a few days have been a bit hot, we have had some great weather during our NY stay. I was hoping to take the kayak on one last trip to see the eagles this morning, but I will have to wake up early tomorrow to do that.

We are planning to leave the Catskills on Saturday morning to head to a family party in NJ and then back into NYC until Sunday afternoon when we prepare to head to the airport. This trip has been in the planning for close to 9 months and it is actually here. There are a number of things that I want to accomplish personally, but the overriding objective for this adventure is to provide Drew and Noah with some perspective on life. Growing up in NYC and San Diego is a gift that not many people get, and some have to live in extreme poverty, which I am certain we will witness in Uganda and Kenya.

As for my objectives, I will be visiting a number of U-TOUCH facilities and will be meeting leaders from many other NGOs in Uganda. I want to understand the impact of the centers and try to figure out the best way to present the story. To date the U-TOUCH team has done an amazing job to establish the need for their project, now it needs to be packaged and sold to some foundations so it can develop. The organization needs some new leadership with technology and non-profit experience and some full time staff to help it reach its potential. We have an amazing mission and the work being accomplished has been awesome, when I get back it will be time to go get some money.

When we return we are going to schedule some house parties where Drew, our 12 year old daughter, will present her view of this experience. We are planning to develop a powerpoint presentation that outlines her life compared to a 12 year old girl in Uganda. I can only imagine how powerful this will be coming from a 12 year old’s point of view.