A Night on The Nile



After a whirlwind of goodbyes at Ndeeba School in Kayunga, a rural farming village in Central Uganda, our bus driver swept us away amidst swarms of students cascading against the sides of the bus to give their thanks.
Some waved. Some leapt excitedly to the windows, delighted at the momentary distraction from classes and ensuing chaos. Some cried.

As we outpassed the last sprinting straggler, shoes long discarded and arms swinging frantically as if on hinges, I couldn’t help but wonder what was coming next – each step further into Africa had truly blown me away with its beauty and natural raw power.

A mystery location awaited us at the end of our volunteer positions, and after a brief stop in Jinja, the bus chugged wearily to a dusty standstill along the banks of the River Nile. Here we discarded everything we owned, save a single towel and change of clothes each. Somewhat baffled, we followed orders and left our luggage amidst the now familiar scattering of red dust that finds its way sneakily into the very crevices of your being wherever you go in Uganda. It even lay in the ridges of the wooden benches on the boat we boarded, and in the sun-bleached lifejackets we placed over our heads.

Following days in the sweltering heat and confined compound of the school in Kayunga, the exhilaration of being exposed to the ‘sea’ breeze was akin to quenching a prolonged and exaggerated thirst – a sensation we were also now familiar with. Passing ‘Welcome to Lake Victoria’ signs bobbing uncertainly on anchored buoys along the way, our amazement only extended further as the driver pointed encouragingly with a toothy grin to a tiny island up ahead.
‘Samuka Island. Yours for tonight.”
An entire island?

The single wooden jetty wobbled precariously as we leapt out, and led to a steep set of steps crawling carefully through some of the most exquisite plants and flowers I’ve ever laid eyes on. Each step further into the deserted plains at the top and towards the solitary visible building seemed to break some unspoken rule – the grasses exhaled flocks and flutters of birds I hadn’t noticed, drawing my gaze skyward and to a view of my first African sunset.
This was swiftly followed by the most peaceful night’s sleep I’ve ever had in a tent.

Awakening before dawn to tentative chirping of hundreds of invisible resident birds around us, I proceeded to climb a viewing tower towards the East of the island.It started off slow – a definite brightness in the distance, complimented by a rising cacophony of chattering and squawking around us. By 6.15am, the colours on the horizon had formed a pinky-blue kind of eerie hue, with an orange glow blending up behind them into a stunning orb of light that rose higher and higher with astonishing speed – by 6.30 the sun had fully risen, and fishermen on tiny gondola-boats were bathed in a fresh warm light as they skillfully trawled the calm sea for their morning catch.

Adventures of the Sistine Cocktails

Once upon a grander time – an odd sort of scary free yet directionless time in between my thesis completion and induction into a full-time job – during a trip to Rome, I made the decision to visit the Sistine Chapel whilst still feeling the hazy after-effects of some very interestingly coloured (and flavoured) Italian cocktails from the night before. I’ve a feeling it was sometime close to the beginning of the holiday, as the use of the phrase ‘When in Rome’ had yet to be deemed excessive, although this night might well have been it’s undoing. In any case, in our absent-minded state, myself and a friend from college had found ourselves wandering the long and extensive entrance to the chapel, which actually doubles as a kind of walk-through museum, designed to cater for the miles of wide-eyed and sunburned wannabe pilgrims that turn up every morning in the hopes of skipping the ‘queue’, and getting in first.

I laughed at the eager beavers attempting to push ahead, and muttered cynically under my breath as a group of straw-hat clad old men gestured animatedly at the prices of the tickets at the desk. The place had been there for 500 years, I thought, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon!!
Once inside, Emma busied herself taking pictures of the walls and the floors and windows and everything around us, while I nodded encouragingly, not fully comprehending where we were going or what exactly we were looking at. To be honest I remember blindly following the shuffling sock-and-sandel clad feet of an overweight American woman, half-annoyed at the fact that she was slowing me down, and half-grateful that her sloth-like pace and despicable pink polo-shirt required so little imagination or brain power on my part to follow whatsoever, as everything else around me seemed to demand. Don’t get me wrong, the artwork and intricate details of the ancient artefacts around me were visually stunning, and I appreciate even now their beauty and unique intrigue, but there was only so much one was going to achieve in staring at them for a prolonged period of time without starting to think too much, and my head wasn’t in a great place to be engaging in such deep thought just then.

When we finally made it through the maze of the museum-walk (a good hour and a half of ‘entrance’, may I add, presumably to draw attention away from the fact the whole building and ploy goes under the name “Sistine Chapel Tour’ when there is no actual tour as such, more of a signpost-guided stroll), and we entered into the actual ‘chapel’ part, the only thing that drew my attention was the fact that everyone was looking up. Maybe it was inappropriate, but I found myself preoccupied not with the ancient cherubs, half-naked men and women and chariots on the ceiling and walls, but with the faces gazing upwards around me, the people of today, and their wide-eyed, open-mouthed curiosity as they stared upon the ceiling and turned their heads this way and that in an effort to achieve an owl’s 360 perception of the gigantic hall. I have to say, despite the cynicism in these words, it is pretty impressive. Yet I still amused myself by assigning the humans around me to categories based on age, nationality, marital status, and enthusiasm for their current proximity to history – I don’t even feel bad about it now, it’s just amusing to think back on.

There were people with cameras taking cautious pictures (no flash allowed). There were elderly couples clutching one another in feigned (or genuine, who knows) awe at the images on the walls and ceiling, attempting to express some sort of artistic appreciation, even if they had none. There were students mildly appreciative of the artwork, yet thoughts clearly preoccupied with their impending lunch or dinner or tapas tonight; and there were also some children dotted here and there, confused and resentful of having been dragged along on a day-trip and robbed of games consoles in their parents’ feeble attempt at exposing them to some culture. Meanwhile we all stepped on one anothers’ toes in a fruitless effort to see more in those wall and ceiling murals than any of the millions of visitors who have come to view their magnificence since it’s creation have succeeded in seeing ever before.

The moment called for it, I felt, and I tried to snap a few sneaky pictures of the spectators gazing at the room around them – something which, had I succeeded, would surely have captured the true impact of the ancient artwork on the walls, far better at least than a fuzzy picture of the elaborate cocktail I barely remembered buying the previous night, yet had at the time declared a ‘work of art’ in itself.

As I raised my phone however, not to the ceiling, but vertically in front of my face so as to feign a Sistine-selfie, a lady wearing some sort of sharp heel trod down hard on my foot as she craned her neck to view the nearest depiction of Jesus tring to hide his modesty with a tattered piece of cloth. ‘Ow!!’ I couldn’t help but exclaim, and she jumped back, bumping into a bespectacled man beside her, who in turn lost his balance and grabbed hold of the shoulder of a young girl in front of him, her expression depicting this move as ‘extremely creepy’ on his part and sparking off a titter of judgemental giggles and stares between herself and her schoolfriends.
‘Screw this’, I thought, lowering the phone, ‘too many people’.

I wondered how much it would cost and how far in advance you’d have to book to get a private viewing of the chapel. Tom Hanks would have experienced it, I thought bitterly, an irrational jealousy for the actor blossoming in me as I thought of artwork and landmarks I’d seen already that day which had reminded me of scenes from Angels and Demons. It had been fascinating to see the sights and even better to be able to recognise them from many famous films I’d seen, and so my irritation did not linger as I allowed myself be herded along with the rest of the crowd, subconsciously yet obediently edging ever closer to the door, leading through to a souveneir shop and short exit-passage out into the promise of present-day sunshine.