The midday African sun was too much for my heavy eyelids to fight against. Giving in to their exhaustion, I closed them and stared at the red haze framing a sliver of light that still managed to filter through. My hands lay gently folded in my lap, my phone out of their reach. Any tension in my muscles had faded away hours before and I slouched a little more in my chair, contemplating a nap.
But my ears could not relax. They strained to hear the girls’ voices over Lake Victoria’s waves lapping on the shore of the island. And I had to remind them, for the upteenth time, that the girls were safe and sound on mainland and out of earshot.
Its funny how after living under the same roof for only five weeks, our brains have become atuned to their needs and listening for them. Despite their heavy accents, I know each of their voices when they call me. I even know some of their knocks on our door.
And I wondered for a moment if this was not unlike how mothers feel, when they leave their children on those rare getaway weekends?
Don’t get me wrong — after five weeks of adjusting to our expanded household and Gabriel working 16 hour days between teaching and our role as houseparents, we welcomed a respite. We needed a respite.
But I couldn’t help but glance at my watch from time to time and wonder what the girls were up to? Did they miss us? Did they worry about us being away? Had Kira remembered to take her medicine? Was Jo-Elle studying for her history exam on Monday? Did Katya do her chores?
I willed my ears to calm down and my brain to be silent and I opened my eyes to focus on the beauty in front of me instead. Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow. Today, I was here to enjoy my husband and our own private piece of paradise — Samuka Island.
A small piece of land in the middle of Lake Victoria, the island getaway was a birthday gift from our parents and my grandmother. For a reasonable fee, Samuka provides a 20-minute boat transfer from mainland. We enjoyed a brief stop at The Source of The Nile — where many scientists believe the infamous river truly begins.
Approaching the island from Jinja's lakeshore, we observed the grass covered chunk of rock jutting out of the water, forming a green dome surrounded by a world of blue. Birds overhead circled the rock’s wildlife below — both growing larger with our advance. The fertile slopes of Lake Victoria cradled deep waters teeming with the fish we would later eat on Samuka.
And as we neared the landmass, I thought I caught a few notes of John Williams's Jurassic Park soundtrack, playing in the wind as we stared in awe at the beauty of the island. –> Listen to the soundtrack
After docking, we stepped off the boat and were greeted by a man in bow tie. Extending an arm balancing a silver platter, he offered us oshibori and a glass of freshly made watermelon juice. We paused for a moment to enjoy the refreshing welcome. That’s when I noticed it — the island was deserted, save for us, the 10 staff milling about the property, and several hundred (if not thousand) birds.
My first thought was that our dear parents and my grandmother would be worried to hear that they sent us to a deserted island with who knows what type of birds (could they be carnivorous?) and left us stranded in the middle of an oceanic lake with people we knew little about.
But we quickly came to realize the deserted island was one of the best things that could have happened to us, as we had a full wait staff at our beck and call. After enjoying our welcome refreshment, the manager offered to walk us to our accommodations.
“The walk, it’s very far. Is it OK to leave the path?”
I stared at the sidewalk maze that winded around the property’s buildings and followed the natural curve of the island’s steep, rocky banks. Gabriel and I looked at each other, unsure we were prepared for a hike, despite bringing our backpacks as luggage. The island did not look incredibly large, but it was difficult to know from our position on the southwest side just how far the land stretched. The entire island came to a gentle rolling pinnacle at the land’s center, limiting our view to what lay on the immediate side of the dome.
Noting the heat of the equator's sun, we agreed. Because even if the shortcut was long, at least it was shorter than the long way?
Only five minutes later, after a diagonal leisurely walk across the entire island, we completed our “very far walk” and reached our sunrise accommodations at The Crested Crane.
Later in the weekend, we decided to take a morning stroll around Samuka Island. Even with the stroll turning into a nature-photography-hike, it only took approximately 23 minutes to circumnavigate.
We learned that the island is a bird sanctuary and home to over 50 species. Their cooing and cawing to each other was peaceful, although at first, the sheer number of them made me nervous. I was counting the hours until we got bombed by a crested crane flying overhead.
Gabriel said I was being dramatic, and perhaps he was right. Because miraculously, we managed to escape unscathed after enjoying the island for 44 hours.
The majority of the weekend was spent moving from reading nook to reading nook on the property, savoring the quiet. How long had it been since I was able to go a few hours without hearing my name called, or being needed?
My favorite reading spots included our verandah:
The built-in lounges in our room with views of the lake:
And the Tea House, where you could see the entire island from the second floor:
While I did manage to read almost 200 pages of my book, I spent half the weekend just staring out at the water with Gabriel, in wonder at Uganda’s raw beauty. I did not feel I was in Africa, but rather the Galapagos. Together, we studied the steep banks rising up from Lake Victoria’s depths. We listened to the variety of bird songs on the island, amazed to hear how they changed over the course of a day. We savored the shade of Samuka's variety of trees. We watched stunning sunrises and sunsets…
We ate our way through the island’s menu, feasting on large English breakfasts, followed by lunches of freshly caught and panfried tilapia with tomato corn relish. We tried everything from the fillet (here, pronounced fill-it) to the chicken curry, tilapia “fingers” to beef stir-fry. I felt I could hardly move by the time we left.
On our final evening, the staff built a fire on the cliffside of the island. In the distance, we could see the twinkling lights of Jinja-town and Bugembe. We sat for nearly two hours, discussing Ugandan culture, dispelling American stereotypes, learning some of our differences and discovering many of our similarities.
It is my absolute favorite thing about living in Uganda — the unexpected relationships we make.
Our last morning arrived and Samuka Island’s staff sent us off with a warm goodbye. We promised we would return again. I felt conflicted because I was not quite ready to leave, but at the same time I was anxious to be home.
As we walked the familiar path through campus, the comforting sight of our house rose to greet us. And with it, the squealing of 24 teenaged girls. The pounding of sandaled feet on our sidewalk resounded, echoing off the surrounding brick buildings as our girls stampeded towards us. There was just enough distance when they started their sprint for me to remove my bags and brace myself before our bodies collided in welcoming embraces.
“Kulikayo! Welcome back!”
“Oh, Auntie Sarah, Uncle Gabriel, we missed you!”
“We thank God he returned you safely!”
“We’re so happy you came back to us!”
Even the older girls (who show us little open affection) greeted us with hugs at our homecoming. Their smiles were rays of sunshine to tuck away for those hard days ahead.
While the weekend was a needed getaway — a time of renewal and a blessing for our spirits and energy — more importantly, it reminded us of where our hope comes from, and where we can find true rest.
A special thanks to our parents and grandma for sending us to Samuka Island. Moms and Dads, we can't wait to bring you to our not-so-secret-any-longer-getaway when you visit!