Monthly Archives: March 2014


I’m home in the US.  I’m happy to be back, and please stay tuned for more adventure updates.  It won’t be long.


It’s Friday Night And We’re At The Gym

Yesterday I was working out in the gym, because going to the gym is literally THE thing to do in Hoima.  I paused to take a drink from my water bottle when the guy next to me chortled and said “Ha!  Don’t you know that drinking water when you exercise softens the muscles?  You will be weak!”

What I’m getting at here is that Ugandans love to spend time at the gym but have, to put it charitably, pretty sketchy notions of health and wellness in general.  When I was in Senegal working out was a young man’s game, and the gym I went to was crowded with sinewy kids trying to bulk up for careers as footballers or lutteurs.  In Uganda the gym culture is completely different: because gyms are rare and a single session costs as much as two meals in a local restaurant, going to the gym is a status symbol mainly reserved for chunky middle-aged men.  Most of the other gym-goers are over 40, and they come to drink tea, eat popcorn, socialize, wallow in the steam room, and, occasionally, hoist a few weights.

Working out here makes me realize that I took all of my physical education classes for granted.  In high school I was assigned to a health and wellness class, and on day one I was given a heart rate monitor to wear for the whole period and was told that my grade would be assessed based on how well I was able to keep my heart rate up.  At the end of the class the teacher checked my monitor and declared that I was clinically dead—no matter how I tried to attach the thing, I never got it to register my heart rate.  I was given a pedometer to wear instead, and I discovered that by shaking it wicked hard I could rack up miles in minutes.  By the end of the year I was regularly covering 10-12 miles in every hour-long gym period, and I got an A for the class.  Basically, I was not the most diligent and attentive of pupils in PE class, but when I go to the gym now I realize that from middle school onwards I slowly picked up the basics of working out.  I know how to stretch, what exercises to do on different machines, and have an idea of what a balanced diet looks like.  My fellow gym-goers in Uganda never received this kind of training, and they have a very different approach to the gym.

I get the impression that they go to the gym because they know that going to the gym is what their counterparts in Europe and the US do, but once they get to the weight room they really have no clue where to begin.  Most people work out in slacks, dress shoes, and polo shirts, and are very generous with their exercise advice.  I’m not any kind of muscle-bound gym rat, but I’m still pretty dubious when someone assures me that the bench press is great for relaxing your chest, touching your toes will exercise “the whole stomach region,” and a big plate of rice is the perfect post-workout meal.    Most people spend half an hour or so pedaling on the stationary bike and heaving a few weights around, and then retire to the sauna and steam room to alternately broil and drink beers while watching football on TV.

I get along with everybody in the gym, but the sauna is a battleground.  I’ve seen some egregious behavior in Ugandan saunas that would get you banned from an American YMCA or would get you taken outside and shot at the Harvard Club.  After a workout people usually spread their gym clothes on the sauna benches to let them dry out, which annoys me both because it smells foul and also because I didn’t think of it first.  It’s not uncommon for people to drink tea and munch carrots in the sauna, which ain’t so bad, but the other day I was sitting in there when a pair of ENORMOUS women came in with heaping plates of French fries drowning in ketchup.  I watched in shock and horror as they devoured all of the French fries in the 140* room, talking animatedly and gesturing with potato wedges that splattered flecks of ketchup on the walls.  On another occasion I was in there alone when a group of middle aged guys came in, and one of them started complaining that it was too hot.  “Ah, you man!” his friend said scornfully, “if it’s too hot throw cold water on that stove to cool it off!”  Before I could squeal in protest the first guy heaved a gallon of water onto the sizzling hot rocks of the stove.  The stove went “PFFTHHFTPTHFTHH,” a huge cloud of steam mushroomed off the rocks, and the temperature in the room jumped 30 degrees instantly.  Everyone clawed their way to the door and collapsed outside before our shoes could melt to our feet; the Ugandan guys laughing like hyenas.

I’ve had a lot of fun at this gym, and I’ve been learning a lot.  I’ve lost almost 10 pounds since I got to Uganda, but it’s only a matter of time until the white rice kicks in and I start to bulk up again.