she said (Uganda): "HELLO HOW ARE YOU?" "I AM FINE. HOW ARE YOU?"
December 12, 2015
Alright, not going to lie to you. I am going to be writing all my East Africa notes retroactively. Along with that, nowhere else have I felt like we have evolved SO much in our thoughts and experiences of a place as we have through our African travels. Our understanding and experience across these countries was SO dependent on the specific time and place we experienced it, yet because we have spent so long here and I am writing entirely retroactively, it is challenging to write each note in a way that reflects our experience at the specific time we truly lived it as opposed to through the global lens of our understanding and experience at this point in time, having been here for 3.5 months now. But I'm going to try my best to prevent my current perspectives from interfering with telling the story in the way that we experienced our intense and incredible foray into the wonderful continent of Africa (of which we have not even begun to scratch the surface of!). Also, I understand that Africa is made up of incredibly diverse countries, and thus, when you talk about your experiences you should be saying the country instead of "Africa". In spite of this, I am going to say Africa a lot because a) I'm talking globally about our entrance into this part of the world and b) as I am writing retroactively, there are particular similarities across the 3 countries we visited in East Africa. Nonetheless, I will say the country when what I am speaking of directly and specifically related to that country. For all other times, forgive me if this global reference of a unique and diverse continent offends you, as I know it does some people...
Enter the beginning of July... We were pretty pumped to be flying Emirates Air from Istanbul to Dubai and then Dubai to Uganda so feeling pretty positive when we rolled up to the checkout counter with big bags and big smiles. We were immediately flattened when the attendant said "do you have a visa?". Ack, a question asker, crap...and more importantly, asking about our visa is ALWAYS a precursor to "can I see your onward ticket?". We answered that it is visa on arrival and braced ourselves hoping the inevitable, shitty question would never come. It did. "Do you have an onward ticket?". Uuuuuugh. Seriously, if I hear that sentence one more time I might throw up on the asker. So once again, we feigned total shock and explained our plan of overland travel but the lady was super resistant so we just kept talking, talking, explaining and explaining, just short of begging. And she called another lady over who we expected to override this lady and just waive the requirement like has been done several times before. She didn't. Instead she very slowly, carefully and I would say, patronizingly explained the entire rule/requirement of onward ticket to us and it was very evident that there was NO way we were getting around this rock lady. But we kept resisting anyways in an effort to just totally break her down. It didn't work. At one point she just cut us off and directed us across the way to the Emirates Air counter but what wasn't clear was whether she was sending us over there to have them book us an onward ticket against our will OR if they had the authority to waive the onward ticket rule. We went over there with a freaking even bigger smile and explained our case one more time. The guy took our passports and looked them over. "You've been traveling like this for a long time now?" he says. "Yes, Yes!! 6 months now! And we always leave before our visa expires!" we say. And that was it, he made a call to the check in desk and the requirement was waived away and we got away with no onward ticket, once again! We very easily could have just caved a little earlier and bought that onward flight like they were insisting BUT it seems like if you just put up a little bit more resistance and keep at it for awhile, it usually gets you on that flight with no onward ticket. Sooo that will continue to be our strategy-beg and wear them down. But just in case of another mandatory-Philippines-airport-flight-booking-disaster, we'll also arrive super early for every international flight.
Once we had checked in and passed security we grabbed a Starbucks so we could use wifi to book a hostel in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. We didn't have any Turkish cash left so we just credit carded it. Duh duh duh...
Our flight from Istanbul to Dubai was like 6 hours or something with free meal service and free booze so Bridger, always a saver, indulged. Heavily. It started out as just a beer and then the vodka happened and then a few more vodkas happened...
Then there was a slight intermission to this booze fest...Bridger, as would happen when you slam back drinks and you have the bladder the size of a pea, had to pee. Too bad he was on the inside, me in the middle and a Ramadan fasting Rwandan on the outside. We all got served our plane food trays. Bridger and I's disappeared within minutes and, bless this incredibly disciplined man, his food tray sat on his plane tray in front of him for literally, hours. He had initially tried to tell the flight attendant in broken English to tell him when it was sunset (i.e. the time he could eat) but evidently she either forgot or sunset never comes on an airplane so alas, he sat there not eating. And not eating. Aaaaand not eating. And Bridger sat there, bladder filling more every minute, also patiently waiting for sunset so guy would start eating, tray would disappear and we could all take a bathroom break. This never happened and Bridger was at the point where he was literally bouncing up and down in his seat. Something had to give. So Bridger politely told the guy he wanted to go to the bathroom, pointing to it and pointing to the tray indicating that maybe he could put his food tray on our airplane tray while we are gone. The guy smiled a smile that said "sure, no prob". But then he didn't move. Soooo we kind of looked at each other like "uhh what just happened?" and then asked again. Exact same response! So now we're like, "shit, we even asked to get out and he literally doesn't move, now what?!". I honestly think he just didn't understand what we said because he probably didn't speak too much English. So we sit there wondering how much more direct we can be and formulating the next action plan, when boom, he asks the flight attendant if it is sunset yet and she says yes so, after hours, he cracks open the foil and start eating his long awaited, well deserved dinner. Oh my god, Bridger is literally jiggling all parts of his body and I'm also now about to explode and the guy JUST started eating the dinner he waited hours for...are we really going to be the assholes who forcefully ask him to move THIS exact minute he's been waiting for for hours?! No, no we aren't. So we wait until the man has finished every last bit of his dinner. The second that tray was gone we pretty well stood up and pushed him out of the way on our dash to the bathroom.
Anyways, lesson not learned, Bridger continues drinking. I made my displeasure known and he ran away to the washroom again....and never came back for the last hour of the flight. Turns out he had been shooting the shit with, while simultaneously shooting many, many shots with the flight attendant in the back of the plane for the last hour. At this point he was just so annoying and started to get all pissy drunk.
We get off the plane in Dubai at like 10 pm and pass through the security line where he, in an effort to talk to someone who responds back to him (i.e. not me) made "friends" with the biggest redneck who ever lived, someone who, under normal circumstances, would make us cringe with the things he was saying. And so starts our grueling 11 hour layover from 10pm to 9 am, the entire thing during the time a normal human is supposed to be sleeping. Having already looked in vain for any hotel we could check into (Dubai airport fail-even the sleeping cubes i.e. the morgue drawers cost something like $75...per hour!), we were hoping that there was maybe a lounge or something we could pay some cheap price to go into to sleep and eat. So we wandered he airport checking it out. Truly Bridger was so loaded that it was cringeworthy watching him try to talk to these people at the business/first class lounges, blabbering and asking the same questions back to back because he clearly couldn't process or remember the answer. Basically the lounge cost something like 70 bucks and not only that, you could only stay for 4 hours on that money so obviously we declined. Now at this point Bridger's trying to talk to me and I want to shove dirty socks in his mouth to shut him up because he's rambling and saying these like, weird cryptic things that don't make any sense but when I question what he's talking about he scoffs like he can't believe I can't understand/I must be lying about not understanding. So then at midnight, I start to write blog updates and he sits there and stares for an hour in silence. Wait, until he gets up and walks away and is gone for over an hour. Disappeared. Oh I could throttle him. Later he comes back and tells me in fact he was in the lounge and when questioned, snapped at me that he can't go back because his time is up. Evidently he paid 70 bucks to eat midnight dinner and then wasted the rest of his paid time trying to find me in the airport again. And somewhere along the way he lost his boarding pass. He smells terribly. He has not completed any writing or reading about Africa as he assured me he would. We're headed into Africa for the love, I would have appreciated him to be on his game instead of completely useless to me. But now it's about 3 am and our flight doesn't leave until 9 so through my rage, we both manage to grab an airport chair and sleep for a few hours. It really is amazing how you can sleep mushed up in a ball in a chair with stupid armrests while also managing to protect your valuables. Wait, unless you're Bridger, who did not even bother to even put his foot through his small bag full of passport/cash/valuables. It just sits there on the floor freely for anyone to snag while he passes out snoring so hard. At this point I just resign myself to come what may and sleep as well, valuables bag be damned...until a few hours later when Bridger wakes us up in a total panic saying he heard an announcement that we are boarding now at gate 26, though couldn't clarify this at all when asked and it was hours too early for boarding. I'm gonna say it was the worst layover of my life, the worst travel day yet and among the most mad at Bridger I've ever been in my life as well. Awesome combo hey. The only thing that made it better and worse at the same time was that the whole time we were trying to sleep there was an exhausted family with a baby who screamed steady and it was clear the parents were about to lose their mind. Worse because sleeping at 4 am in an airport chair with armrests (seriously, stop making them with armrests!) in your clothes sucks when a baby is wailing. Better because it was a solid reminder that it could be way worse. I hope to goodness that family at least had a shorter miserable layover than us.
Boarding that next flight from Dubai to Entebbe, Uganda was the most welcome blessing in the last 24 hours. But I was totally blown away to see how many white faces were on that plane into Africa. Seriously like 40% of the passengers were white people...that is more "% of foreigners" than any plane I have ever been on in my life before. I do not understand it. And it was also crazy the difference in quality of planes from Turkey to Dubai (nice enough) and from Dubai to Africa (terrible even on Emirates). I have since learned that most all airlines fly their shitty planes into Africa. Bridger had a fun flight puking in the tiny plane bathroom.
We arrived at the Entebbe airport to get our "visa on arrival" for 50 USD. Except the lineup for immigration was massive and we waited and waited and waited like polite Canadians who actually know how to f'ing line up. Seriously, everyone else was creating their own lines outside the barrier, thus cutting the cue, which basically took out one full immigration person serving assholes not even in line-up while the rest of us waited in line like civilized people for the other 3 counters. And then said assholes, because they were "next in line" started to move over to any open counter. At this point I was about to punch someone when all of a sudden the immigration police showed up and started making sure assholes at least only got served at the one counter. Oh we were soooo mad. Nothing ticks a Canadian off like inconsiderate, self serving pricks. You could tell things were getting tense around there because the passengers were all grumbling and budding and tattling on each other to security and the immigration staff were getting increasingly gruff and angry looking and it was just a bad day for all. We ended up standing in line for over 2 flipping hours.
Gosh we were relieved when it was our turn to go to the counter which we did...and finally understood why it took forever and a day. Do you know what the immigration guy said? They said "The visa fee is 100 UDS". What the hell?! I thought the visa was 50? He very indifferently stated, "New fiscal year. It changed as of midnight on July 1". Not even joking, it was4:30 pm on July 1st. At this point I'm rip roaring mad because there was absolutely NO mention of a fee increase anywhere let alone an f'ing 100% increase and I'm beyond convinced that they were just having a shitty day and arbitrarily decided the new price to make a little extra profit in this incredibly corrupt part of the world. I weakly protested saying that it is supposed to be $50 in hopes that if questioned with the correct price maybe he would withdraw his exorbitant bribe request but alas, he held firm and maintained angry stone-face. And then I remembered the East African visa that allows you to enter Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya that was 100USD. Because we were going to only Uganda (50USD) and Rwanda (30USD) it did not make sense to get it but now, faced with a visa jack and a 30USD savings, I demanded to know how much the East African visa was now, to which he snottily replied that it is also 100 USD. Even though he had already stamped my passport for a Ugandan visa I said, "Ok I'll take the East African visa then". At this point, still thinking they are just jacking us around for extra pocket cash, I'm feigning confidence in that I know what I'm talking about but actually shaking in my boots because I didn't want to get taken for a ride buuuut I also really wanted to tread lightly around making this guy mad when he held the power to let me/not let me in to the country, especially as I was painfully aware that we do not possess an onward ticket, a technical requirement for entry so if I pissed him off and he needed a way to get back at me, he had one! Anyways how it went down is that he rolled his eyes and huffily told me "fine, I have to go get the book; I wish you would have told me before I stamped your passport" as he proceeded to cross out the new Uganda stamp.
We finally made it legitimately in the country and picked up a shuttle at the airport that would, after some bartering, take us into the capital Kampala for, quoted in local currency shillings, but the equivalent of like 21USD or something. We jumped in and were treated to a soundtrack of DMX and other gangster rap. Welcome to Africa! For both Bridger and I, that drive, our first foray into our long awaited trip to Africa, was completely surreal and it was literally a massive overstim but wonderful stim of every single one of our senses. We were utterly blown away by how lush and green everything was, honestly like nothing I've experienced before. And the dirt! Always a deep, deep red color everywhere. The red dirt with a backdrop of sheer greenery combined with throngs of people walking down the road and/or milling about their little roadside stands was too much for us to handle.
I don't know why this drive was SUCH a pivotal moment for us but definitely a vision of Uganda that will be burned into our memories forever. Even though we still weren't talking, we definitely had a shared moment of awe that luckily didn't require words to communicate.
Kampala traffic was unreal and it took us much longer to get to our hostel than the reported 45 minutes. We finally got dropped off at our pre-booked hostel in the center of Kampala and we paid 25USD, giving the guy a solid tip because of the longer time and left. How freaking relieved we were after the last terrible day to finally make it to our hostel. Relief was not to last. As we were checking in, the security guy came back saying our driver wanted to talk to us. Bridger went out and guy basically asked for 3 more USD! Now after a month in Uganda we would have laughed this guy out of town and totally disengaged and walked away but being our first hours in Africa, our terrible layover, our terrible fight, our terrible time in immigration and the fact that both our phones were completely dead so we couldn't actually physically show him the specific conversions btwn shilling and USD, we just thew money at the man to make him go away. And then we slept.
The hostel, Fat Cat, was actually fabulous in an awesome location in Kampala. And there was a night security guard in the compound with a massive shot gun or machine gun or something, I can't tell the difference. I've been around a lot of guards with machine guns in the world, but never actually guarding...us. We would quickly come to realize that an armed guard is pretty standard practice in Uganda everywhere. Literally every ATM, supermarket, hotel, mall etc. has one and soon it would just become another one of those things that is so ordinary we stop even noticing. We would also quickly come to realize that the Ugandan equivalent of a tuk tuk or tricycle is called a boda boda, essentially a motorcycle with a long seat for the driver plus passengers.
Somewhere along the line we got some dismal education on boda bodas in Kampala. We would be informed that boda accidents were the leading cause of traumatic injury and death in Kampala with some stats estimating something like 20 deaths per day. We would also come to be told that many boda drivers in Kampala are actually gangsters, criminals or drunks. They are the leading cause of death and injuries to foreigners and expats to the point that some companies forbid their employees from riding them. We would also, unfortunately, come to realize that this is literally the only real way around Kampala so most everyone rides them all the time. I decided that first day, I wouldn't be! Traveling on it's own is of course, more risky than staying home though I would argue marginally so, however, some risks just surpass the reasonable risk margin...like bodas!
From my perspective, here is what transportation looks like in Kampala. You have your private cars. Then you have your public matatus (called taxis in Uganda), little like old VW hippy van shaped minibuses that cram as many people in as possible and run on relatively fixed routes but do not actually list where they are going so still to this day, not sure how people can get around the city on them.
Then there are the big orange city buses that also do not list destinations and that always seem to be empty. And then there are "special hire" taxis which are essentially cabs as we understand it except there seems to be no regulated formal system for actually being a special hire taxi so after months in Africa, I'm still not entirely sure how you know what is a special hire taxi because basically they are just old unmarked cars driven by some guy and I'm not sure how you actually go about flagging one off the street (I don't think you do) if you need one. Usually they approach you but if you are in the middle of nowhere and need to get home, outside of boda I'm not sure how you do it. And then there are the thousands of bodas. And then you mash all of this together in the road (they drive on the opposite side as us) with no traffic lines, lanes, lights or otherwise rules and order. The bodas furiously weave in and out of traffic cutting off cars and missing others by inches while the rest of these vehicles, basically sit there in jams for half the day. And every vehicle, save a few private cars, is just beat to crap with massive scratches obviously from the inevitable sideswipes, beat-in places, rust, falling off bumpers, anything you can imagine but they all just keep cruising along according to some, unknown to me, rules of the road. The name of the game here just seems to be whatever happens happens, get over it. In our very small time spent in Kampala we witnessed a boda crash into a car smashing its headlight out and bumper off...and then zoom away faster than you could blink leaving the driver to get out and calmly pick up the piece of his car. And then when we were in the most insane taxi park on earth, we saw one matatu literally slam into the back of another matatu and nobody said a word, everyone just kept on business as usual. I'm equal parts torn between wanting to get out of it as fast as possible and being in a complete zone of awestruck and energy!
Kampala itself was also a bit shocking to me. For some reason I expected the capital to be a bit more cosmopolitan, more developed with some skyscrapers and big city stuff and clean and orderly. Not so. Central Kampala is exactly what you would imagine a big African city to be with concrete/wooden shops lining the streets, that same red dirt everywhere that is not concrete, low rise weathered buildings and bustling, congested streets. There is not much that looks too techie or modern from what I've seen so far!
Those first few days in Uganda were totally overwhelming and entirely surreal but we had to run around trying to navigate the city to get a bunch of junk done. Luckily there was a mall right by our hostel so we checked it out hoping Bridger could get his smashed phone fixed there. How happy were we to see an actual certified Apple store in this mall! Our excitement was short-lived, however, when we found it completely gutted like nobody had ever been there. Turns out, we would find out later, it in fact was NOT a certified Apple store, just a fraudulent guy who decided to pretend that he was a certified Apple store until he got closed down haha. But we found another tech store that said they could fix Bridger's screen no prob so we were thrilled that it was going to be that easy. Then, since we were going to be here for a good chunk of time and it was dirt cheap, I picked up a Ugandan SIM card for my phone, again, easy, no prob. We left there and then we walked to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office to get info about getting a permit to see the mountain gorillas in the west of the country. On our way back the kids were getting out of school so we were passed by a steady stream of kids eager to give high fives and fist pumps to the foreign people. At one point an entire herd of kiddos was walking in the same direction as us and started holding my hand so I had one on each hand and the rest waiting patiently for their turn to hold my hand or staring up at me waiting for me to do something! We chatted a bit but, being so young, they didn't speak so much English so we just walked, holding hands and smiling but me, also wondering if everyone else on the street thought we were completely weird. The kids were freaking adorable and it was such a lovely little organic moment! But, being an African newbie and on high alert, because you know, "Africa is so dangerous", I was keenly aware of whether any little hands were making their way into our pockets!
We ate dinner at a fabulous little cafe full of expats (seriously, the area around this hostel is full of white people!). The waiter must have thought we were total mutants because when he came to take our drink order Bridger asked what form the Guinness came in (tap or bottle). No sooner than he answered that, I asked what form the rum and coke came in (mixed or separate shot/entire bottle of Coke-seriously, every country is different, you never know what you're gonna get and the form dictates the cost!). He graciously answered and when he came back with my rum he brought a tall glass with a shot, a short glass full of ice and a bottle of coke. Naturally I'm pumped to have ice so dump my shot into the mix drink size cup of ice and then pour the coke in and stir. Waiter comes back and is absolutely incredulous about what I've done and asks me perplexed, "why did you do that? why didn't you use the tall glass, thats' why I brought it!". Sooo I guess, unlike Canada, Ugandan's don't drink rum in a short glass like us and you look like a freak of nature for doing it that way. We're screwing up Uganda left right and centre.
In the daytime we are quite vigilant as we walk down the street. I always wear long pants and t-shirts to be conservative, Bridger always has his hand in his pocket to ward off pick pockets and I am constantly scanning who is around me and what they are doing. Not gonna lie, I'm a little overwhelmed and uneasy just being out in the Ugandan capital city world. Night is a new level and for the first few nights we didn't leave the hostel because we weren't sure if it was safe to be walking around Uganda at in the dark which unfortunately happens at like 7 pm. A lifetime of hearing about how sketchy Africa is hard to shake...
Bridger got his phone back. The screen was good as new except for the fact that it says "iPhone is disabled for 23 929 170 minutes".
Well that's nice. Is that some sort of a funny joke Apple? Turns out somewhere between dropping it off and fixing it, the incorrect password had been entered so many times that Apple by default, disabled the phone basically requiring that it be connected to your iTunes (where, in theory you would have a backup) to wipe and reset it. That's fun because we don't have a computer, it hasn't been backed up in 6 months and Bridger will lose all of his contacts and more importantly, all of our amazing Turkey pictures that had not been backed up to Dropbox yet! Enter, feeling pretty devastated. But as luck would have it, there actually IS a certified Apple store in Kampala so we took it there for a last ditch effort hoping maaaybe his back up to iCloud was activated and they could help us get the pics back once the phone is wiped. So off we headed, by foot, to the 4th certified Apple store of this trip. Sure enough by some miracle, the pictures had been backed up to iCloud so we didn't lose everything and they were able to help us restore everything to normal after the wipe clean. Ooooh the happiest I've been in awhile. The Apple store was in one of Kampala's "newest/biggest malls" so we hit that up while we were there thinking, again, it's a capital city so the mall will probably be pretty upscale. This would be our first of many lessons about how different African "malls" are. Even the newest ones can feel kind of depressing with like everything being gray and like 14 stores and not much excitability there! Though we did find this amazing African craft store and unexpectedly went off shopping with actually no freaking idea where all of this stuff was going to go in our already over full packs but not caring because it was all so awesome!
Ever the not-a-fan of big cities, once we got our chores done we got out of Kampala as fast as possible. By luck we had found out that a white water rafting company ran a free shuttle (if you raft with them) from Kampala to their base in Jinja and it picked up right at our hostel. So like 9 at night we arranged to jump on that for the next morning, avoiding the infamous "Africa time" public transportation adventures for one more day. And then we experienced the "just try to pack your bag when your appetite for beautiful African crafts is much larger than your capacity for carrying such things". I honestly didn't think we would manage but in the end everything was in despite the odd giraffe head hanging out between zippers. Off to Jinja we were, complete with a bagged omelette because we didn't wake up early enough to eat our breakfast before the shuttle.