Friday, October 19, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part Three)

This is Africa. Consequently, our flight from Nairobi to Kampala-Entebbe was delayed by over an hour.

Upon arriving in Entebbe, I was first struck by how brilliant all the colors were. How clean and cool and vibrant the buildings, the people, the landscape was! Of course, I had only recently seen The Last King of Scotland, so it was even more intriguing that I was striding across historic tarmac.

I digress. Not only is Entebbe airport historic for its placement in the film, but also
  1. Its position as the jumping-in point for journalists and UN forces during the Rwanda, Burundi and Somali conflicts, romantically detailed in books such as Emergency Sex and Zanzibar Chest;
  2. Its central role in Israel's dramatic 1976 rescue of hostage passengers on Air France flight 139.
The swift air, cooled by its transit over the deep waters of adjacent Lake Victoria, pushed me along as I made my way to the customs and immigration office. A more significant contrast could not be made between beautiful East Africa and the desiccating, arid wasteland that is the Horn. I greeted everyone I passed with an enormous, contented smile.

Despite our late arrival -- and my inability to convey this information to my planner friend back in Nairobi, I was instantly met by my guide, Lule, and our driver. They had waited. (This sort of thing doesn't happen in the U.S.)

Lule gave me a warm and strong handshake and wondered if I might like to stop, on the way to Kampala -- 40 kilometers away -- at a resort where we could share lunch? Agreed, good friend... agreed.

I and my travel partner, Alaina dined on the stunning shores of Lake Victoria. We had a brilliant, flavorful, stuffing lunch lubricated with delicious Coca Cola (served in the old glass bottles, natch) at a total cost of 12USD. For four people.

Before leaving Nairobi and upon realizing that I'd be traveling to Uganda, I asked Mr. Asudi (my travel planner) if it would be at all possible to see the Baha'i temple in Kampala. He said, "of course, anything you'd like." I was elated.
Though somewhat less-than-orthodox, I am yet a Baha'i. I've never had the opportunity to visit Haifa (where our World Center is), and my sense of Baha'i community is very fractured because of the nature of my work and lifestyle. To be serendipitously provided the opportunity to visit one of the only seven Baha'i temples in the world was incredible. I never would have imagined I'd have the chance...
Once the bill was settled, Lule told the driver in Luganda that we needed to head to Kampala -- at the center of which lied the Baha'i temple -- and in short order, for soon (due to our flight delay) the sun would set.

Alaina and I gaped at the landscape and the people as our car sped those 40 kilometers. We passed countless piki-pikis and banana markets and Catholic schools and donkey-pulled wooden carts and vitenge stores along rust-red dirt streets proudly advertising SIM cards and laundry soap.

The equatorial sun fell quickly as we made our approach. Increasingly, I worried... but felt selfish. I knew that I'd have just this one chance to see the temple, but I struggled with feeling bad about possibly missing it, given that I hadn't planned on doing so, and that I was so mesmerized by everything else that Uganda offered me... Nonetheless, we had soon pulled out of the chaotic maze that is downtown Kampala and begun ascending a clay road when I noticed this:

Baha'i Road! We must be getting close! There can't be too large a Baha'i community in Uganda, after all...

I gasped with excitement. Soon, over the canopy I spied the top of the temple. It was gorgeous, and it drew me. I pushed up against the back of the driver's seat in order to crane a better view. Slowly it became larger as we climbed the mountainside, but it was obscured by trees with increasing occasion as we approached.

We finally arrived and the driver parked our rented Toyota saloon just outside the gates to the temple's grounds. They were padlocked shut, and the guard shack was vacant. No buzzer, or bell, or phone. Immediately, I was crestfallen, but in short order I made up my mind to be appreciative of the opportunity I did have, rather than the one I did not. I left my bag and fellow travelers behind and walked around the high stone fence that surrounded the grounds, furiously snapping pictures of the temple on the mount before the sun set and blanketed the vista in darkness.

I traipsed over fallen logs and through briar patches and resettled bushes as I made my progress around the southern fence. Soon, Lule approached me and said that the locals in the neighborhood below told him that there was an open footpath to the grounds just around the corner. I laughed nervously and patted him on his shoulder, and I picked up my pace in an effort to find it quickly. Suddenly, there it was, and unceremoniously I began the walk up the hill's steep incline, drawn to the temple as my only landmark. I began breathing deeply and eventually slowed, if not for the effort of climbing then for the indescribably beauty of the landscape around me. 70 acres of the most stunning gardens spread in every direction -- like a verdant cape thrown atop a pyramid.

Lule and I arrived at the top, where a sign stood.

I was home. 7000 miles from home, yet I'd found a piece of it.

The Baha'i House of Worship and the surrounding grounds is a special and sacred place built for prayer and meditation. It is made available to people of all faiths and races.

I was, of course, disheartened to read the first rule: The Temple gates are open 8:00AM and 5:30PM including weekends. It was significantly past 5:30. I wasn't supposed to be there.

I quickly made for the last 50 meters separating me and the temple. Soon it became apparent that the temple doors were locked shut, so I frantically asked Lule and Alaina and our driver -- all of whom had mysteriously appeared -- to snap pictures for me.

In short order, a smiling Ugandan teenager approached me from the caretakers' residence. With great apology, he informed me that the grounds were closed. In turn, I expressed my most sincere appreciation for the fact, and made an attempt at excusing my trespass: that I was an American Baha'i traveling to Jinja, with only the one day in Kampala, and that my flight from Nairobi was delayed, and I just had to see the temple before the chance was forever lost. The boy expressed his understanding, still smiling. He asked me to wait for a moment, and he headed back to the residences.

I sat on the stone stairs leading to the temple, drinking in the view. One could see all of busy Kampala, in every direction. It was breathtaking.

The boy returned, with an older man in tow. The older man, I soon learned, was the director ("Bwana Direkta"). I greeted him as one Baha'i to another, "Allah'u'abha" to assure him of my benevolent intent, and he smiled and returned the favor. His first words, though, were to reiterate what the teenager had said: "I'm sorry, but the grounds are closed." I respectfully nodded, and thanked him for his trouble, adding my story -- the one I had related to the teenager. He smiled again, nodding... in his eyes, I could see a change... he reached into his pocket and removed a key. He told me I had access to the temple for as long as I'd like. He would make an exception in this case.

Praise be.

I unlocked the massive wooden doors -- of which there are nine identical sets (one to each side of the building) and sheepishly stepped inside. Despite the careful and deliberate placement of my feet, every sound was acquired and rebroadcast a thousand times within the nine-sided dome. The enormity, the gravity of it all inspired the most intense feeling of deference. I was, for the first time in my life, I felt, in the presence of something of God. I removed my hat in a nervous attempt to seem pious...

The inside of the temple was simple, not ornate. There were no glowing candles or sweeping promenade or idols standing at its fore. On each wall was a carved-stone, ivory-white sign emblazoned with the Most Great Name.

There were wooden pews in rows at the temple's center. I chose the most middle seat and quietly settled. I brought my face to my hands and prayed... or meditated... or thought... or recollected. Whatever it was I did, I did it with reverence. It had been a long and very difficult year. My heart still beat with the whisper of S's name. I had lost my way and my purpose and my love. I had missed my daughter for nine months, I had lost my father. Yet, strangely, somehow the "I" in all of these thoughts was absent. They became "S is missed, she is confused and in pain and she is loved." And "My daughter has missed her father for most of the year." And "My mother struggles with the loss of her husband and my siblings miss their father." And countless others.

I weeped. Tears streamed down my face and collected on the marble floor. I felt that I was being simultaneously crushed and elevated. An intense feeling of something collected and welled inside me and broke over me and suddenly I knew that I was done. I didn't need to be there anymore. The experience I'd had was not religious. It was spiritual, and it was my first.

I stood, proudly, and made for the temple's exit. Once outside, the faces of my compatriots told me instantly that they realize what had happened. My cheeks were still damp and ruddy. I raced to the director and grasped him in an enormous hug. All I could say was, "Thank you, friend." He patted my shoulders and told me that I was welcome. I could feel the tears regathering, and I moved to Lule, my guide and then our driver and then Alaina and gave them each their own embrace.

As we were gathering ourselves to depart, Lule -- who is Muslim -- asked the Director if he could come back and learn more about the Baha'i faith. I smiled again.

So many things could have transpired to prevent me from having had this experience. It was an excellent lesson: sometimes things really do just work out.

Next up, in Part Four: Whitewater rafting the source of the Nile river.


elay said...

that was a wonderful journey. i enjoyed going through your blog.
do keep posting.

i'll be dropping by again. c'yah!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your love life troubles. Best thing to do is to hook up with a new honey. There are millions of them out there. Younger and prettier too, just like Kidd Rock sez. Be a stud and don't look back.

Snoqualmie said...

This can't keep happening.

I am currently struggling so hard against myself, against my fears of faith, and against my refusal to ask for help - over what? I feel the need, the *physical* need, to ask a Rabbi for help, to connect with my heritage, to belong.

You're having the experience my heart is longing for.

I promise I'll email you about this and the other things I've mentioned.