The Best Cup Of Coffee In Uganda

Knowledge, as they saying goes, is power. True. It also leads people to become annoying know-it-alls, Nobel Prize winners, dictators and/or plumbers. For me, though, it just made me a coffee snob.

Let me explain. I’ve always appreciated good coffee but I didn’t really know what made coffee good and not good. But in December 2011, a magazine sent me to Ethiopia to discover why the coffee of this East African nation was so great. I traveled there with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Geoff Watts. Mr. Watts, introduced to me by the owner of a coffee house in my neighborhood, is possibly the most important coffee buyer on the planet. Geoff was on a mission too: to buy superlative coffee for the hip coffee roasting company (which just opened its first outlet in New York City, by the way).

A while later, I was in Uganda, an East African country not particularly known for its java. I was staying at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park. When I commented on the coffee, one of the employees said they grow and roast the coffee themselves. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Nicole Simmons, the director of the program. Simmons originally came to Uganda to study the troop of 20 chimps that live down in the gorge near the resort. She liked it here and when the opportunity came to run the program, she jumped at it.The rub, though, was that she didn’t know much about making coffee. So she went to work, reading as much as she could about it. She recruited 11 women and one man, all residents of nearby villages, to bring in their plucked coffee cherry (which is always written about in the singular), where they would de-pulp it, shade dry it and then roast it.

“The problem with Uganda,” Simmons said, “is that there’s no quality control here. Even when a coffee maker or roaster stays there, you taste the coffee and it’s not good.” Simmons shrugs, adding. “This is Uganda.”

Another thing about Uganda, or at least this part, is that it’s below 1,300 meters sea level. That means it’s technically not highlands and it means quality Arabica beans can’t grow. It also means she’s stuck with robusta beans, which are far inferior. “It’s perfectly okay,” says Simmons. “Robusta is indigenous to this area. We do a lot of quality control and so this means we can either do a very good robusta or a mediocre Arabica.”

She walked me over to a bucket of water and a bag of cherry. “The kind of quality control we practice is this: we only put cherry in a bucket of water. Whatever floats, is probably a bad one. And then we only put fully ripe cherry through the machine – if it’s too green it makes the coffee taste bitter.” It’s a temptation among coffee farmers to turn in all the cherry they’ve plucked, even the green ones, since they’ll get paid based on the amount they turn in. The rub, though, as Simmons pointed out, it leads to poor quality coffee.

The only way to get Omwani Coffee (as they’ve named it) has been through Tank Coffee in the UK – though it doesn’t seem to be available on their site at the moment.

About a third of the women in the collective are HIV positive, and earning the extra money from this side business means they can now afford medicine when they couldn’t previously.

So, it turns out, a little knowledge of coffee saves lives too – and that’s a good thing.

Unusual Event: Uganda’s Royal Ascot Goat Races

This weekend, Uganda will be hosting their Royal Ascot Goat Races. Held at the Speke Resort on the shores of Lake Victoria, this annual tradition has been going on since 1993. According to BBC Travel, it came to be when a local sailing club decided to put on a quirky fundraiser, borrowing inspiration from a Zimbabwe horse breeder who held a pig race in his garden for his birthday. The club swapped pigs for goats, creating a successful event that draws people from all around the world. As the races grew, the club began to model the event after England‘s Royal Ascot horse races, complete with over-the-top outfits and awards for the best-dressed man and woman and most elaborate hat.

On September 1, 2012, the race will mark its eighth year. Although goats may not be the fastest animals in the world, the prize awarded to the winner is 30 million shillings (about $356,379). Additionally, spectators can bet on the races to win money of their own. And even if someone bets on a losing goat, they’ll still “win,” as proceeds are donated to a local charities.

For a more visual idea of the Royal Ascot Goat Races, check out the video above.

A Writer Returns To Uganda Without Ever Leaving

I’d been looking for an excuse to leave Kampala for a several weeks. After our guard stole my roommate’s bankroll and the security company asked us to decide whether he should be fired or pistol-whipped — we settled on the latter after both protesting and soliciting his input — I’d been tasked with a story about health care that required me to loiter in a hospital where amputees dragged themselves down the halls from ward to ward. I was young and these slight horrors planted the seeds of anxiety: I was convinced that the waiters at the expatronized Ethiopian restaurant, who al-Shabab would murder a few years later, had become rude and that the screeners at the gates of parliament had taken an unhealthy interest in my press pass.

When my less-than-encouraging editor offered me the Murchison Falls story, I took it immediately. I’d never said no to him and it was finally convenient to say yes. I didn’t want to be at home anymore. My half-built compound had been all but taken over by a group of construction workers, men who wore their muscles like wet suits and sweated accordingly.

Murchison Falls National Park had once been renowned enough for its plentiful wildlife to attract the Queen and the Prince of Wales, but the last few decades had been hard on the area around Masindi and Lake Edward. A series of rebel armies — anti-Milton Obote, anti-Idi Amin, anti-Yoweri Museveni — took up residency in the hills near the Blue Nile. After a Lord’s Resistant Army soldier gunned down a British tourist on safari in the park in 2005, the State Department issued a warning and the slow trickle of adventurous Europeans stopped altogether. Most of Joseph Kony’s boys fled the scene of the crime and the few elephants, crocodiles and hippos that hadn’t been eaten or used for target practice were finally left in peace.

%Gallery-151569%I was to report on the resurgence of tourist arrivals in the park and interview some of the park’s staff and visitors. A National Parks functionary assured me that this trend was real and handed over a study that I felt sure had been fabricated for my reporting pleasure.

In Masindi, a bumpy 10-hour bus ride from the capital, I hired a skeletal Toyota with a cardboard floor for the ride to the campground inside the park. Despite lengthy negotiations — me pointing out that the car’s floor was made of cardboard, the driver pointing out there were no other options — I agreed to spend $75 to get in, leaving me with $60 to get back out.

“Easier to get out than in because you find friends,” the driver assured me.

“Are you going to come pick us up?” I asked. Skepticism must have leaked from my voice.

“That depends,” the driver said, declining to elaborate further on how he might be swayed.

I handed over the money and found a campsite as far from the group of aerosol-happy tourists in safari gear as possible. I shooed away a small family of warthogs, pitched the glorified sunshade I planned to use as a tent and fell asleep.

I woke in the version of Africa I’d fantasized about before coming to Uganda. God rays spotlit acacias and Africans were all but absent. The earth seemed to arch its taught back towards the sun. I met with a guide who told stories from the bad old days when the crocodiles were pockmarked from machine gun fire and I took souvenir pictures for an unrelentingly photogenic German couple. A park boat ferried us to the falls, where the spray created a miniature jungle eco-system populated by a playful troupe of Mangabeys. Water buffaloes nestled together in the shallows and a hippo hollered back at our boat’s engine, showing a broken fang.

A skittish Kob fled the yawning snap of a crocodile’s jaws as I took notes for color.

In the afternoon, I snuck away from the other tourists and climbed a hill towards the Paraa Safari Lodge, which sat clean and empty on top. The pool water bordered on opaque and the hunting lodge feel of the cavernous foyer was undermined by the blue glow of cheap fluorescent bulbs. Money hadn’t returned with the tourists and I was forced to flee an overly friendly concierge, who demanded I pay him “only $100” for a night’s stay. Back at the campground, the Mzungus had gathered to watch a storm come in over the savannah.

The wind kicked up and the rain hit before the clouds were overhead. The family of warthogs we’d treated so brusquely the evening before took shelter in the lavatory, frightening a drunk backpacker who peed on her leg as she hussled out into the storm. My sunshade-tent crumpled under the first downpour, filling with mud. I tried to pull it upright again and threw a tarpaulin over it, but the rain snapped a pole and the entire nylon contraption found itself in a rusting bin.

The on site bandas cost $50 a night so I faced a decision: Stay out in a flash flood the campers had been told might cause “hippo trouble” or have no money left to leave the park. I ordered a beer. A buzz looked like the only buffer I’d be able to afford against the creeping night.

The sky turned a yellowed grey and lightning lashed out at the savannah. Something substantial was moving in the bushes just beyond the tiki bar and the strong smell of the earth turned the Nile Special to borscht in my mouth. It took me two hours to empty the sweating bottle and, when I had, I felt relaxed in a way I hadn’t felt relaxed since leaving the states. I was backed into a corner, but, framed by the view of the dark plain, my quandary seemed both small and natural. Some places demand to be met on their terms.

It was nearly midnight when I noticed that the boisterous clan at a nearby table was speaking American. I moved closer to investigate and saw their reading material, Michael Savage and William Kristol. Along with their plasticene shirts and the Fantas all around, the paperbacks gave them away. I tucked the colorful part of my vocabulary under my tongue and approached them, using a Giants hat as a pretext for conversation.

“Are y’all from the Bay Area?” I asked.

They were and I’d lived there and yes, I knew San Mateo.

“What do you think of Zito’s arm?” the large, bearded man who appeared to be the mission’s leader turned and asked me. Time for the shibboleth.

“He’s just old,” I told him and found myself with a new friend.

Ten minutes later I’d been granted a seat on their plush tour bus all the way back to Kampala and two soft drinks after that I’d decided to spend the last of my cash on a banda. I fell asleep after herding geckos out of the bed. The rain puddled under the door and the bottle cap-sized spiders in the thatched roof girded their webs against the damp.

In the morning, I watched sturdy North Face tents birth the missionaries and helped them stuff their unnecessary packs into the back of the bus, which soon left the campsite behind.

We were standing at the top of the falls, a pit stop on our way back towards Masindi, when a skinny missionary in her mid-thirties approached me.

“I miss San Francisco,” she said.

I agreed that Northern California was a very missable place.

“I do feel like it’s getting ruined though,” she said. “I feel like it is just for the gays now. It seems like normal folk are going to get kicked out. Does it bother you?”

It was a pretty impressive piece of maneuvering. I had to become Judas or admit my base indifference to scripture. I went with honesty and outed myself. “Not at all,” I said.

She looked at me thoughtfully for a while before protesting meekly: “Don’t you want to have kids?”

A few scripted sentences later and I found myself alone. The missionary returned to her group, which buzzed briefly. I blushed into the wind and listened to the monkeys giggling in the trees. Politics stops at the waters edge, but only to take a deep breath before the plunge.

Back in Masindi, the large, bearded man pointed out a low-slung building and said, “Ernest Hemingway stayed there.” His implication seemed to be that this was something we could both be enthusiastic about and he was quite right.

In 1954, Hemingway and his wife arrived at Murchison abruptly as their plane crashed into the savannah. Two days later, after they were rescued by a passing boat, they crashed again in a different plane and Hemingway sustained the head injury that many blame for his depression towards the end. It was a horrible story.

“Goes to show,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be.”

This folksy wisdom resonated for a second, but no longer.

I’d decided to relish my new role as dangerous interloper. I engaged a 10-year-old on the subject of his middle school love life and the a middle-aged softball coach type on global warming. Though none of these conversations became contentious, they did provide me with the opportunity to join the devil’s team. I picked up my pompoms. Though my impropriety was, for lack of a better word, dickish considering that these kind people we’re doing me a solid, I reveled in the relief of finally, after spending so long feeling vulnerable, being the unknown quantity. By the time the bus rolled into Kampala, I was refreshed to the point of being eager to reenter the Africa I’d fled. The smoggy chaos that had seized my neuroses now seemed like a bear hug.

I asked to be let off in a particularly ramshackled part of town, beneath a billboard advocating against “Sugar Daddies” and shook every right hand on the bus.

“Thank you so much,” I said as I stepped out. “You saved me.”

“You’re welcome,” said the skinny missionary. I clearly wasn’t.

I rode home on the back of a bulky Yamaha and I filed my story a few days later. When I wasn’t happy with the edits, I remembered that I didn’t have a monopoly on fear and told my editor the fudged stats were sitting too high. This protest made precisely no difference, but I felt good enough about it that I bought an extra plate of Ethiopian food for my bruised, inconstant guard.

A few weeks and a few confrontations later, the suspicion crept back in. Still, it never became overwhelming again. To be corned and to corner others was just the way of things. The savannah was never far away.

New travel philanthropy partnership helps children in Uganada, Africa, through their “$1 for the Future” campaign

Beginning this month, Marasa’s Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, Africa, launched their “$1 For the Future” campaign in conjunction with USAID’s Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift Program (USAID-STAR) and the Uganda Community Tourism Association’s Pearls of Uganda Program.

Guests who stay at the Mweya Safari Lodge are invited to donate $1 per day of their stay to help rebuild and construct schools for children. This also includes building murals that reflect the theme of conservation and children being taught the values or protecting wildlife.

Not only does this campaign aim to help children, but also to protect the land in East Africa through conservation and education. The “$1 For the Future” program is an example that highlights the ways that tourism can support sustainable tourism.

Top ten most crowded islands in the world

From an island microslum in Colombia to a haute enclave in central Paris, the ten most crowded islands in the world bear scant similarities in class or culture. In fact, every entry in the top ten comes from a different country. But being islands, each shares the common thread of scarcity – whether it be land, resources, or housing. In general, these islands are prophetical microcosms for an overcrowded earth – finite spaces where self sufficiency governs and demand pierces supply.

With the world’s population racing higher and higher, and the “megacities club” accepting new members yearly, some day the earth could bear the traits of one of these densely packed islands.


10. Vasilyevsky Island
Location: St. Petersburg, Russian Federation
Population: 202,650
People per square kilometer: 18,592
Size: 10.9 square kilometers
Story: This island located in St. Pete is a collection of 18th and 19th century buildings with some Soviet built apartment blocks lining the Gulf of Finland on the western shore. The communist housing ethos of the twentieth century called for rows and rows of tight apartments, and this historic island in Russia’s second city was not immune to the sprawl. This created the compact quarters of Vasilyevsky island. Famous for its old school stock exchange and giant Rostral columns, the island is popular with tourists.

9. Lilla Essingen
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Population: 4,647
People per square kilometer: 20,204
Size: .23 square kilometers
Story: This small island in central Stockholm once served as a hub of industry for Stockholm’s industrial operations. The easy boat access allowed for ease of shipping by boat, and the island factories manufactured an array of goods, from massive lamps for lighthouses to vacuum cleaners. Eventually, as the industrial applications became outmoded, the island became home to several apartment towers. Today, the island is crammed full of smiling Swedes living in apartments with (presumably) tasteful modern furniture.

8. Île Saint-Louis
Location: Paris, France
Population: 2,465
People per square kilometer: 22,409
Size: .11 square kilometers
Story: Perhaps the most stylish island in the world, Île Saint-Louis is a marvel of 17th century urban architecture and planning. Narrow roads and some of the priciest real estate in the world have allowed the island to remain relatively calm, despite its location in central Paris. While Île Saint-Louis is off of the tourist radar for most, this island in the Seine River embodies the classic Parisian spirit, worthy of an afternoon stroll with a perfect sorbet from Berthillon. The island is named for France’s canonized King, Louis IX.

7. Manhattan
Location: New York, New York
Population: 1,585,873
People per square kilometer: 26,879
Size: 59.47 square kilometers
Story: In 1626, the Lenape Indians sold Manhattan island to the Dutch for a bag of axes, hoes, iron kettles, duffel cloths and other 17th century garb worth about $24 (roughly $1000 in modern value). It is safe to day the island has grown ambitiously from this humble transaction. The center of the financial universe is now home to many – truly a place where the world lives. The island once known as New Amsterdam, and briefly, New Orange, shadows America’s story, both tragic and triumphant.

6. Salsette Island
Location: Mumbai, India
Population: 13,175,000
People per square kilometer: 30,217
Size: 436 square kilometers
Story: Salsette, an island off the western coast of India, is home to Mumbai and its sprawling suburbs. As a poster boy for “New India,” Mumbai is as dichotomous as it gets, at once the wealthiest city in south Asia and also home to one of the world’s largest slums – the notorious Dharavi. Dharavi is an island within an island, a super-slum with roughly one million people spread out over an area less than a square mile. At the other end of the spectrum, Salsette Island is also home to extreme wealth. The house known as Antilla is a 400,000 square foot giant that towers with some of Mumbai’s tallest buildings. Truly a contrast from the squalor in Dharavi, the private residence houses six people, can accommodate 168 cars, has 9 elevators, and an ice room with snow flurries.

5. Ebeye Island
Location: Marshall Islands
Population: 15,000
People per square kilometer: 41,667
Size: .36 square kilometers
Story: When the United States decided to test nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, they chose to do so amongst the atolls of the Marshall Islands. U.S. officials uprooted many residents from Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll to insure that the testing did not directly harm human life. The relocated Marshallese had to move somewhere, and most moved to Ebeye under the assistance of the United States. This forced relocation caused a huge mess, including a severe housing shortage and land owner legality issues that persist today. The combination of factors created an environment of hostility and squalor, creating the slum of the South Pacific.

4. Malé
Location: The Maldives
Population: 103,693
People per square kilometer: 53,121
Size: 1.952 square kilometers
Story: The Maldives is one of Asia’s top tourist destinations, with 26 atolls and 1,192 islands offering beach perfection. At its center is the capital city – Male. Male is a humbly sized island of just a couple square miles. It is stuffed full of people, hotels, mosques, and office towers that efficiently utilize the scare land resources. While landfills have reclaimed some land from the sea, most progress is made vertically rather than horizontally. The modern downtown island in the middle of the Indian Ocean is a stark aberration from the deserted islands that dot most of the Maldives.

3. Ap Lei Chau
Location: Hong Kong
Population: 86,782
People per square kilometer: 66,755
Size: 1.32 square kilometers
Story: Hong Kong is the land of a thousand towers, clustered most densely on the island of Ap Lei Chau just southwest of Hong Kong Island. Ap Lei Chau served as the settlement for Hong Kong Village, theorized to be the etymological source for the famous larger territory of Hong Kong. Strangely, Ap Lei Chau translates to Duck Tongue Island, said to be named for the island’s shape. It is filled with high rise residences and even a winery.

2. Migingo Island
Location: Kenya, though Uganda disputes this
Population: 400
People per square kilometer: 100,000
Size: .004 square kilometers
Story: This bantomslum in the middle of Lake Victoria is a fishing village perched precariously on half a sphere of rock. The residents take in large hauls of the Nile Perch – a poster boy for River Monsters that can grow to a comedically large size. Migingo is famous for a decades-old dispute between Kenya and Uganda over the sovereignty of the small island. There is even a facebook page where individuals can “like” declaring the island Kenyan. (The page has twice as many followers as there are residents on Migingo.) Uganda agrees with this claim, most of the time, though the tiny rock island is not the issue – the fishing rights are.

1. Santa Cruz del Islote
Location: Colombia
Population: 1,247
People per square kilometer: 124,700
Size: .01 square kilometers
Story: The most densely populated island in the world is a microslum off the coast of Colombia. This tropical island is located in the emerald waters of the idyllic Caribbean, though is packed so tight that most activities are done off island. Schooling, football, graveyards, and work all take place away from Santa Cruz del Islote. The island park is the size of a small tennis court, and fresh water must be shipped in by Colombian Navy ships. Santa Cruz del Islote also does not have electricity. What the island favela does have is people, lots of them. To visit the world’s most packed island, hop on a ferry from Tolu, Colombia. The nearby hotel of Punta Faro can arrange tours of the island.

All unattributed images from wikimedia commons