she said (Uganda): "CAN WE GO ONE DAY WITHOUT GETTING RIPPED OFF?!"
December 12, 2015
Wanting to spend as little time in Kampala as possible, we planned to head out to a place in Western Uganda called Fort Portal, about 5 hours away by bus. Invariably, this would also be our very first time navigating African public transportation.
Not really having any idea of what to expect, we took a special hire taxi to the bus stop of the bus company. Our special hire drove down into the heart of old Kampala and gave us the boot at an ever so slightly caged off dirt parking lot beside the road...ah, the "bus stop"! Immediately the car was surrounded by people trying to cash in by carrying our bags so we carefully got out, blocking all of our stuff with our bodies until we could get hold of it properly and then pushed through the throngs of people and navigated around the vendors. It was all quite overwhelming and we truly had no idea how we were supposed to actually know what bus to get on/where to buy a ticket because it's not like there was a ticketing office or any signage or any real order here! Sure enough someone with a jacket with the bus company's name found us and sold us what we hoped was the correct ticket to Fort Portal. I was a bit paralyzed by the chaos so Bridger popped on the bus quickly to see if there was any room in the overhead bins or under the seat so we could take our big packs on the bus with us as recommended because bags often get swiped from under the bus in one of the numerous pick up/drop off spots along the way. There wasn't, so short of carrying our packs on our laps Jinja-Kampala style for 5 hours, looks like those suckers were going under. Now somewhere along the way this trip I had really developed a healthy level of detachment to the stuff in my big pack. I always hoped to keep it buuuut if for some reason it disappeared there is nothing so valuable in there so I wouldn't have been totally screwed or heartbroken. And I was pretty comfortable with the fact that dirty clothes, old flip flops and women's products were not so enticing to anyone to warrant the effort of stealing my bag. In Asia I never really heard of packs disappearing from under the bus, only that people hide in the under compartment and rifle through your stuff stealing any valuables which we didn't keep in our big packs anyways. In Middle East this was also not ever spoken of and not really a concern. Yet here we were in Africa and all of a sudden I experienced a massive case of rebirthed bag attachment, all of a sudden becoming very invested in NOT losing my bag and questioning my coping ability should it not be there when I arrive! This was especially prominent because should something like that happen, I'm not sure how/where I would actually buy stuff to replace it at this point in our African adventure as shopping here is not as easy as just going down to the local tourist market and re-stocking. As it turns out, it is easy to become "bag detached" when the probability of it being prematurely removed was slim, however, I became increasingly aware of the fact that here, in such a poor country, perhaps all of the things in my bag (and my bag itself) actually had more "street value" than I gave them credit for and would be a worthy grab after all. When faced with that reality, all of a sudden I was pretty agitated having my bag under the bus, especially because our seats were on the wrong side of the bus to be able to watch the comings and goings as we stopped. But lacking any real options we surrendered our bags and boarded the bus, getting the stare down by a bus full of stone-faced Ugandans who did not appear so impressed we were on the bus (this was my interpretation). On to the next horror- no toilets on Ugandan buses! Between bag and toilet anxiety I was pretty ramped up as we sat on the bus...for an hour waiting for it to fill up completely, the norm in Uganda. I tell you, that noise of the engine firing up is the most welcome sound in the world after you've sat not moving for an hour.
I had kind of visualized any buses in Africa to be pretty weathered being held together by threads but it was actually decent, definitely comparable to SE Asian standards. Of course no seat belts. And now I will tell you about Bridger's horror- no AC. But at least we were right by a window that was openable. And we are the only foreigners on the bus. Actually we are the only foreigners we have seen anywhere all day since leaving the hostel! As usual, Bridger plugs into his podcasts but I was riveted just by looking out the window at Ugandan life go by. And the greenery. Never experienced anything like it...just rolling hills of green everywhere with some villages interspersed along the way followed by more rolling hills of green. Just wow.
Half way through the bus stopped for a toilet break. We know the Asia script for mid-way bus stops where we pull into some restaurant/formal stop and everyone gets off the bus, eats a complete meal and reboards half hour to 45 minutes later giving you more than enough time to meander the random junk for sale, pick up some readily available ice cream, oreo cookies or Lays chips and navigate the inevitable filthy squatty potty toilet. We do not know what to expect on the Ugandan mid-way bus stop. We pull over essentially at the side of the road where most people as it turns out, stay on the bus. The bus is swarmed by a flurry of people carrying everything from boxes of cold drinks to meat on a stick to bags of chapati, a flat doughy bready pancake thing (that is absolutely delicious by the way) and pineapples, full freaking pineapple plants, all screaming up at you to advertise and hands were flying out the bus window left right and centre passing down money and receiving any number of these goods. Good business up in the old side of the road bus stop! We have to pee so decided that one will go, the other will stay on the bus with our valuable stuff and then we'll trade. Being the one with parts making it more difficult to just randomly pee in public if need be, I was awarded first go, so off the bus I go. Forget packaged oreos and ice cream here, the roadside was lined with makeshift shops of wooden board buildings and not much to be purchased in the form of identifiable products. Seeing a muzungu get off the bus was very exciting for the vendors who immediately offered up everything they had. And I wondered where on earth in these not shop shops I would find a bathroom or if there even was one or if there was, what was it going to look like?! Obviously the look on my face clearly conveyed such a thought because a local took it upon himself to direct me without me asking. All things considered, though a squatty potty, the condition of the bathrooms was optimistic and far better than anything I ever experienced at a SE Asian rest stop! On the way back, I just short of ran past, blowing by the same vendors with a big smile saying I have to let my boyfriend pee!! I get on the bus, he gets off and gets tsk tsked by the driver who tells him to hurry up, unimpressed that Bridger waited until this late in the game to run for a "short call" as they call it here. While he is still gone the bus starts honking its horn telling everyone to gather back. Are you kidding me, it's been like 6 minutes?!! I start jiggling in my seat willing Bridger to get back here asap which, having received my telepathic messages, he does. I am the happiest person in the world that I do not have to stand up and shout at the driver to not drive away without my boyfriend on my first African bus ride.
Along the way I really started to realize how, as Canadians, (there are of course exceptions) we are so trained/cultured to automatically consider how our actions impact other people around us and adjust our own behavior as necessary to not offend. Perhaps that is how we got to be such apologizers. Not so in Uganda! At one point on the bus, the guy in front of us hauled the window his way to close his window without even looking at us or acknowledging in any way that doing so made our window pretty well wide open such that we could almost blow away. Luckily for him (not that he cared), we kind of liked the air. And then later, not even joking, without a word, the guy behind us reached forward and completely closed our window because it was too windy for him, leaving us melting in the heat while he, conveniently kept his own window open, wtf?!? Can you even imagine in Canada, just reaching over and closing/opening your bus neighbors window to your liking without so much as a word?!?! And then later, the lady in front of me reclined her seat all the way back and it must have been broken so it reclines more than usual because it left me with maybe 7 inches between the back of her seat and my face. And as if that wasn't rude enough, she lays her entire hand over the back of her seat so is now 3 inches from my face. And as if THAT wasn't rude enough, she starts flipping and swinging it around as she talks to her friend such that I am literally dodging her assholeish fingers so she doesn't clip me in the nose! I wanted to bite her fingernails off. But I'm too polite. I'll just suck it and probably apologize to her if she actually hits me in the face. But seriously, it's hard not to be offended when people show that level of lack of consideration for you!!!
The bus rumbled on and by the time we arrived in Fort Portal 5 some hours in, the aisle was littered with garbage, pineapples and children laying on blankets at their parents feet. What a different world. Bus drops us at the side of the road where we are pounced on by boda drivers wanting to know "where we go". A driver quoted us 3000 shillings to which I flatly refused having read earlier that it should take 1500 from the hotel into town. I tried to negotiate but he refused to take us for less than 2000 so out of principle (another of those does the principle outweigh the actual dollar value) we bluff walked away thinking he'd drop his price. He didn't so now we're awkwardly stuck sitting on the ground around the bus stop looking at our phone while boda guy is 20 feet away staring at us and talking to his boda buddies obviously about what assholes of tourists we were. And we were assholes because, being not good at doing Uganda yet, we walked away for like the equivalent of like 10 cents. We sat there arguing over which of us was going to do the walk of shame back to boda guy after I'd made such a stink but both of us were feeling too stupid and embarrassed to do it. So we sat there. And sat there. And talked about how we were gonna get out of this situation. And then we came up with the brilliant plan that we would pretend and tell him that we were just gonna walk to the hotel (it was like, a few km!) instead but as soon as we were out of sight, we would pick up another boda. So we did...for 2000 anyways. I truly felt like such an asshole and then started to get all jittery that he would tell all his boda friends to not take the jerk foreigners with long blond hair and a nose hoop...unfortunately we have a few distinctive qualities that make us possible to blacklist. We suck at Uganda.
Fort Portal is an absolutely beautiful little town. Clean, green, incredibly fertile, nestled within the hills and literally sitting at the base of the towering Ruwenzori mountain range which provides a spectacular backdrop on a clear day. It had a little bit of that African town feel from Jinja and a little bit of that laid-back western town feel. And a lovely little small town vibe.
The guesthouse we stayed at was equally charming with gardens and gazebos surrounding our little log cabin and balcony perched on pastoral grounds with cows mooing and an abundance of birds basking in the sun all day long. One day I even heard a rustling in the bush and spotted a little chameleon 5 feet from our door slowly and ataxically climbing and crossing the trees stick after stick, usually looking like it was neeeeever going to reach the next stick but sure enough just stretching until it could stretch no more and without fail, reaching the next stick.
At this lovely place, breakfast was even included in the price! And there was an option to eat a home cooked supper at the hotel at 7:30 which as we checked in, the lovely, lovely guy asked us if we'd like to join that evening. Only thing was that it would be the most expensive dinner we ever ate in Uganda to date at 30 000 shillings, approx 11 CDN so we weren't entirely on board. Ever the polite people, we were making conversation and chatting with the chef about dinner and asked how many people. Guy responds "12" and Bridger says "ok so we'd be 13 and 14", as in confirming, not agreeing, and guy lights up excitedly and says "oh that's what I was hoping you'd say!!!". And just like that, we had involuntarily and accidentally committed ourselves to the most expensive dinner in Uganda, possibly on this trip to date! Turns out it was a slippery slope because in the end I think we ended up eating that absolutely delicious, expensive 4 course dinner 4/5 nights we stayed. As expensive as it was, it was a welcome and healthier change from burgers and chips, burgers and chips, burgers and chips, pizza that we'd become so accustomed to in Uganda so far. The owner of the guesthouse was also a real chatterbox, particularly about politics and we were equal parts torn between wanting him to stop talking and being riveted by his interesting stories. But I think actually we mostly just felt stupid talking to him because he was obviously a very well educated sort of fellow and he had far more knowledge on even Canadian politics (was NOT a fan of our prime minister!) than we'll ever have the best of days let alone in the days being totally disconnected from the "real world" for 6 months so mostly we just smiled and nodded like we knew exactly what he was referring to even though we hadn't the slightest clue for most part. Ok well that's not always true because Bridger is like this bottomless pit of secret knowledge. Half the time I'm sitting there nodding and hmm'ing away hoping to hell hotel guy doesn't ask me any questions or God forbid, an opinion and then all of a sudden Bridger just drops this like, super knowledge bomb about something totally obscure! Seriously, the man knows so much about even things he has never ever spoken about and I have no idea where this comes from. Anyways hotel guy was talking about the upcoming Ugandan election in Feb 2016 and said that there is actually now two candidates running against the long standing President Museveni, you know, the one who re-wrote the constitution to allow him to remain president for endless consecutive terms, ya. Anyways hotel guy was saying that African presidents want to stay in power because life is never usually good for ex-African presidents because there is usually always someone who hates them so often they end up put in prison, robbed off everything etc. Tough life.
Our first morning I woke up and happened to see these little spindly string-like things sticking out the top of my hiking boot. I treaded lightly around this, expecting one of those huge African spiders from my imagination. It was still a bit dark so I bravely investigated with my flashlight, expecting to go into full on spider hunting mode, and found that the string-like things were...actually string -- they were loose threads from the boot itself haha. Hello hyper-vigilance! Though I kept waiting for the bubble to pop, the bug scene in Uganda has been surprisingly non-existent. No cockroaches, no spiders, no giant unidentified bugs in the dark shadows of our room. This would unexpectedly hold true for the most part across our African travels...I think we only saw 2 hairy hunter spiders and not even so big the entire time we were travelling here. A few spindly leg web spiders but not even notable enough to give you a chill. For the most part we were unexpectedly able to relax leaving our clothes strewn on the floor across our room, our bags open, our mosquito nets untucked and not treading lightly every new, especially dark, room we entered for the first time...the total opposite of Asia practice. To this day, Asia takes the price for the mother of all large, bug infested everything.
Our first day in Fort Portal we decided just to walk around town exploring on foot.
It was a little unnerving because in the hours of walking, we were actually the only foreigners on the street and we were left to wonder at the very least, where were the other tourists?! But this has been our experience since we got to Uganda...more the most part, outside of the "expat restaurants/places", everywhere we go in daily life (e.g. buses, walking the streets, grocery stores etc.) there are no foreigners/tourists...you are it. This is new...everywhere else we've been there is always either throngs of tourists or at the very least you see a handful here and there on a regular basis. Not so here... foreigners are definitely around but the proportion is far lower and after awhile you just stop looking for them all together (we would later realize that there is actually a HUGE foreigner population in Uganda but they just don't walk the streets or take public transportation because so often they have their own vehicles). It can definitely be overwhelming to be the only white in a sea of black and to stand out and be noticed SO much. For that reason and others, I would definitely not recommend it here as a new travellers because the whole experience just feels a little bit more raw. Also, all the Ugandans look at you and their expressions, not gonna lie, are not so warm and inviting. You know everyone we ever talked to has said that Ugandans are SO nice but we're having a hard time finding the nice ones because most people here are "stone-facers" as I would describe them. Smiles in passing are hard to come by and we've generally felt like Ugandans have been pretty indifferent or even snotty/rude, sometimes rolling their eyes when we ask a question or need to buy something. And let's face it, African's by nature just seem "more cool" and "harder" i.e. more intimidating than anyone else! And then you throw some dark sunglasses on an unsmiling Ugandan face...a little terrifying! But everyone says Ugandans are SO friendly so we are left to wonder, is it just us?!
Bridger has decided that he must watch some very important tennis match going on so he's been on a mission running all over town trying to find a bar/restaurant that has a tv and the channel to play the game. This was looking entirely unpromising as so many of the places we went still had those big ass boxy tv's. Finally he found one bar that might be able to play it even though the staff were less than enthusiastic. So he jumped on a boda to get there without missing a single minute and I walked home to purposefully miss many minutes. As I was walking back to the hotel, two young Ugandan boys like 8ish years, were walking close to me and "fighting" each other like they were scared to be walking alone with me so they kept pushing each other forward toward me. Eventually they split directions and one kept walking in my direction so we started chatting. He was super tentative and just beginning to learn English so a few times I had to take a guess at what he was asking me because it was a bit disorganized but he was so sweet. At one point he asked me "if I was Israeli?". When I asked him why he thought so he said "because I am the same size". I guess Ugandan's think all Israeli's are midgets much like myself. And then he asked me about my job and I explained that I work with handicapped kids (I hate that word but unfortunately it is the most recognizable way to explain what I do worldwide because nobody understands "special needs") and his response: "like kids with no arms?" haha...interesting that that is what handicapped means here. I said sure but I work with kids with different kinds of brains too and he says, "oh like me?". Not sure what that means?! At which point a dog came running out into the street and he panicked and asked me "are they going to eat us?". Soooo dogs are pretty feared here.
I make it back to the tennis bar for dinner and to "watch tennis" i.e. drink Smirnoff Ice. We asked for a menu and were told that a waitress would come over and verbally tell us the menu. Alright. She didn't so we had to ask again at which point we were told the meals were pork and chips or goat and chips and the associated prices. P.s. goat is one of the most widely consumed meats here and you don't have to go far to find a roadside stand with a goat carcass hanging in the doorway. Anyways, we ordered a plate of pork skewers and fries to share to our waitress with quite broken English. What showed up was that AND a plate of fried goat and chips. Instead of trying to explain that we only ordered one meal, we just bit the bullet and ate it. The pork was alright but the goat was disgusting...all blub and cartilage and we could barely find any edible meat on it. Gross.
We continue to drink and watch tennis for a few hours and eventually get the bill. And it's a total fuckaround. The goat, the meal that just showed up without us ordering it, was almost double the price of the pork even though she initially told us only one price. My coolers were charged at 4000 ea when the sign on the wall clearly said they were 3500. Bridger had 9 beers on teh bill and even though he didn't exactly keep count, he swears up and down that he didn't drink that many. And there was a red bull on there, coincidentally the most expensive drink in the house over doubling the price of beer/coolers, that neither of us had. So we call over the waiter and say what's up, especially with the Red Bull. Waiter casually explains how that was for him because Bridger, remember, asked him what he was drinking and said he'd buy waiter a drink. Bridger swears this did not happen. Guy insists rather neutrally that Bridger offered to buy it for him buuuuut he'll take it off if we want... Guilt. Honestly, it all was rather shady but at the same time we were in a bit of self doubt about what all went down-- there was a big language barrier with all the staff, Bridger was a few beers deep so I'm wondering if he said something in casual conversation that may have led the guy to misconstrue what he said as an offer, we didn't formally complain about the goat show up or ask the price or keep track of how many drinks we had. The overall amount in question split two ways was not a significant cost and we really weren't 100% confident that this was a blatant screwjob so we just opted to begrudgingly pay and get out of there, but not without a sour feeling. In retroactive news, writing this after 4 months in Africa is infuriating because I now know without a doubt that it was absolutely hands down a screwjob. What happened was that they gave us extra food knowing that we would just take it and end up paying which we did, they added several drinks to our tab thinking we wouldn't notice and I guarantee you that nobody ever drank that Red Bull but the money instead went directly into someone's pocket. Having much more "Africa smarts" as I have now, I wish we would have faced the devil on that one. But hindsight is always 20/20 isn't it and you live you learn. Anyways, now by the time we left there, it was like 10 pm and everything was pitch black with no street lights and we are still, the only foreigners on the street though there were still Ugandans everywhere. And we had to make it home 5 minutes drive to an even blacker and quieter suburb just outside of town. What was navigable in the day was a whole different game at night. So naturally, I'm kind of freaking out feeling like a super target walking through the dark streets of Fort Portal, being all jumpy and scanning everywhere around me as I walk. But we can't walk all the way home because that would be stupid wandering the dark suburb streets at night and we can't get a taxi because there aren't any so basically our only option home is a boda. I'm wondering how we are going to get a boda that doesn't opportunistically pull off the side of the dark street on the way home and rob us because why not, there is nobody really around over that way...and we're in Africa. But we don't have any choices so we grab two bodas and motor home, happily safely though I still think that it wasn't a smart move to be out so late and take random bodas from the street that are not vetted by anyone we know. Again knowing what I know now, we should have called our hotel and asked them to send a boda that they trust to bring us home. But we didn't quite know how stuff worked here yet.
You know, it's hard to exactly explain what I mean, but it's been a challenge to kind of get a read on Africa/Uganda safety. We haven't quite been able to work out whether some misfortune might possibly happen if we do something in particular or if it will absolutely, unequivocally, inevitably happen if we do that thing. Like if we walk after dark, is there a small possibility that we could get robbed or is this an almost certainty? If you put your bag in the luggage compartment under the bus, is there a chance it might get stolen or will it inevitably get stolen? We knew coming in that we'd have to keep our wits about us in Africa as fro the most part it is quite poor so obviously foreigners are a target. And it is hard to shake 30 years of socialization that "Africa is dangerous/terrifying/violent" etc. which is the message we are raised with. Most other places we've been you could get a pretty good read on what was doable what was sketchy but here everything just seemed so much more difficult to predict. All of this has made us pretty skeptical and mistrustful and really leads to quite a heavy feeling of uneasiness as we try to navigate a world we cannot predict at all.
To be honest, I think we've both been feeling a little sad because we really wanted to love Uganda and were SO excited to come here...but we can't shake the feeling that we just don't. It is a bit exhausting. The level of vigilance we're operating on is exhausting. It's exhausting to constantly be ripped off and taken advantage of. We've not found people to be overly welcoming, warm or friendly (except the kids). We are plagued by self doubt about everything we do. We fiercely limit what we do in the name of self-preservation. Aside from some undoubtedly spectacular natural beauty, sadly, we are left to wonder whether our idealized notions of Uganda were far better than the reality. Why aren't we enjoying travelling here as much as we thought we would? Perhaps we just aren't ready or "hardened" enough travellers to do Africa?