How pumped were we when we woke up at 6:15 am, got our free breakfast from the hostel, then our free shuttle to the new hostel in Jinja and then free tea on arrival. Man free stuff never gets old. Once again, it was easy to pass the time just by looking out the window at the beautiful assault on the senses that daily Ugandan life was. The lush greenery and manicured lawns of the uppity neighborhoods of Kampala gave way to the wooden rickety shacks of the slums of Kampala which gave way to wide open fields of banana trees and tea plantations dotting the countryside from Kampala all the way to Jinja all mixed with Ugandans walking everywhere, some literally carrying everything from jugs of water to sticks on their heads, the odd bicycle and a whole lot of speedy matatu drivers overtaking each other as fast as the wind blows.
Jinja is a funny and interesting little place. On one side it is a lovely little town made up of lovely leafy suburbs full of gated and secure compounds, invariably the norm for businesses and expats in Uganda.
Then there is main street Jinja, a paved but dusty and industrial looking street lined by a wall of concrete shops on each side and endless traffic cruising through. On the other side of main street is a bustling truly African-looking town with endless shops, most of which I can't exactly figure out what it is that they are selling, congested dusty, orange streets and people moving about everywhere. Quite the contrast and a little of everything. Jinja's claim to fame is that it lies on the banks of the Nile river, the longest river in the world. I don't think we really knew or appreciated the significance of this at the time quite as much as we should have. Not only is Jinja situated right on the banks of the river, is also the highly contested "Source of the Nile", i.e. the origin of the Nile river as it begins to flow Northwards throughout Africa. Pretty cool stuff.
One thing that became starkly obvious over the course of our stay in Uganda was how many not-backpackers are in this country. Not even joking, almost every foreign person we met was either doing an internship or related project, volunteering, doing research affiliated with a university or otherwise working for some length of time with an NGO. And seriously soooooo many were American which is insane because, world over, Americans are everywhere doing awesome development/humanitarian projects but rarely do we ever meet an American who is just freewheeling it backpacking around. I don't know what they do for holidays but aside from a handful of people from California or Colorado, they just don't seem to do this kind of traveling. Unless perhaps they are backpacking in a place in the world that I have never been? Anyways, in honesty, and this is speaking truly in hindsight, I think we probably met like five people/groups over several months here who were truly only here for backpacking and exploring in the same way we were. Ok that's not true, there are also touristing "overland trucks" that come through particular places in Uganda. Basically these are all-in package large groups who travel on a budget staying in backpacker places/camping and travel via their large transport truck. We didn't run into so many on our trips but Jinja was like overland capital of Uganda. But we didn't tend to associate with these groups too much because, and this is painting a very large generalization but, they tended to be young, newbie or gap year travelers who loved to be so f'ing loud and party alot. I can't judge because I was pretty well on the equivalent group trip in SE Asia as my first trip abroad and likely behaved in the exact same way and had a great time. But then I aged 10 years and got over that scene and now I love more than anything, quiet (like don't even play music or talk please!), soberness and great conversations with smart people...all of which the overland trucks don't offer me.
So back to the point, summer in Africa is the absolute height of the tourist season...this becomes particularly obvious on weekends when all of the budget/backpacker accommodation across Uganda is usually packed with volunteers who escape their M to F projects for a few days to travel elsewhere. So needless to say after arriving in Jinja, on a weekend but not just any weekend, the freaking Fourth of July weekend, we found out every single bed in the Jinja dorm of the rafting company was full. So we were booked the one and only space in one of the safari tents up in their camp outside the town, on the outskirts of a village on the banks of the Nile. When we asked how we would actually get there we were told we would just "take a boat up" when we were ready. No problem, we like boats. But first we had some jobs to do in Jinja town before heading up to the middle of nowhere.
Our first task... post office to get rid of basically everything that we don't need to be carrying every day for our second big mail-home of the trip. Luckily the hostel was gracious enough to let us go into the common area and literally explode our backpack contents all over the floor to sort through, making sure we didn't miss even one coin adding to the insane weight of our packs. It really is incredible how in spite of not buying anything (except the exorbitant African crafts shopping in the last 2 days), our packs continually get heavier and heavier. It's mysterious but consistent! When we were satisfied that every unnecessary thing in our bags was out, we jumped on a boda each (not ideal but much less scary in smaller towns) for the two minute ride to the post office, expecting a lovely government building with, in spite of the seeming lack of resources in Jinja, everything you might need for your mailing needs and more. Hahaha...
We arrived at the post office with our plastic bag of goods and our credit card which we figured we'd pay with, walking in to see a rudimentary, archaic looking, pretty well empty room with a equally rudimentary wooden counter.
As with so many things in Uganda so far, it blew me away how far my imagination was from fact, to the point that makes me think one should just never bother imagining! Upon entering, we immediately had a deep rooted feeling in our guts...that paying with credit card was a very optimistic hope. Ok cool, no prob. We held up our plastic bag full of randoms and casually asked for a box to pack it up in, exactly as we had done in Dubai. We were kindly informed that, nope, no boxes BUT we could go buy one from the supermarket just down the street. We asked for tape to pack up our box that we were about to go buy. Nope, no tape, but we could buy that from the store just a few stores down from the supermarket. So our super efficient post office visit began with me staying in the post office guarding our stuff and Bridger running all over town picking up mailing supplies. To this day, I have NO idea how Bridger managed to find this stuff because, as I mentioned, "stores" in Uganda are mostly just a room hidden by metal doors that so often seem to be full of just random stuff piled in random ways without so much clarity as to what this store is "about". Except for the odd, consistently Indian owned (big Indian population in Uganda, who knew!) supermarkets which had some level of familiarity such that we could manage to find the stuff we were looking for. Anyways, he managed because I can count on him for stuff like that, to make order out of chaos. Every time.
We spread out stuff around the post office, packing slowly and carefully so all of the stuff survives the 14 some hour airlift journey.
The post office staff guy was super friendly but also lingered just a biiiiit too long, literally asking us what we had and peeking at our bag/box himself. Friendlyly curious or scoping for swag? At this point, we're assholes, but couldn't help but wonder if he was checking out what kind of valuables we might have and we're thinking this box, as in many post offices in developing countries, would be stripped bare before even making it out of the post office. Obviously you would never mail electronics, cash or other valuables because they would never stay in that box all the way home, but historically I wouldn't have worried so much about old clothes and handicrafts because they don't have so much overt street value. But then, we started to think that in a very poor country, all of a sudden every little thing, even old smelly clothes have value to sell on the street and especially brand new handicrafts that could easily be sold to a shop and re-sold all over again. It didn't help calm our nerves when we passed him the completed box and he said "hahaha this is MY property now!" and when we said "thank you" and he thanked us right back! It also didn't help to find out our heavy package was going to cost us $161 to ship, only to be pilfered down to a few pounds anyway! But what could you do but cross your fingers and hope, so that we did.
We hit up the supermarket to grab some malaria snacks (which turned out to be stale as old hell and tasted truly like dish soap) and asked if they had a plug adapter so we could charge our devices in the Ugandan outlet. Sure enough they did and gave it to us but it was a bit weathered so I'm entirely convinced that it wasn't reaaally for sale and they just had one they were using, but just pulled it out of the wall because hey, in Uganda, everything that can sell, will be sold!
Ok chores done so made it back to the hostel and asked the owner how we catch the boat up to the river camp. He had entirely no idea what we were talking about and started telling us there was no boat and asking us if we were talking about taking the boat out this evening for a sunset cruise and other equally confusing comments that had all 3 of us sitting there wondering what in the hell the other was talking about. This went on forever until we figured out that he had NOT said we "take a boat up" to the camp, he had said "we take a boda up" haha. Bridger always panics in conversations with Ugandans because he thinks he can never understand what they are saying so usually I linger closely and eavesdrop so I can fill in the blanks, narrowly avoiding a potentially awkward situation..but this guy who told us was a British guy (there are SO many expat Brits around here) so that's a whole new level of not understanding! In his defense, it does sound the same.
Now I had stupidly thought that over my course in Uganda I would just decline taking bodas for the most part, though it quickly was clear that I had obviously completely failed to consider alternatives with this line of thinking. Basically in Uganda, there is no alternatives. You take bodas for 5000 or you take a special hire taxi for 20000 because fuel is expensive, a fact the drivers will never let you forget. There is no other quick and cheap alternatives here (i.e. tuk tuks) and so often you can't/shouldn't walk because it's either too far or dark and not safe not only because of thievery but also because of crazy driving. So deep breath, I guess we're not only "taking bodas up", we're riding on the backs of motorbikes with our backpacks on our backs and small bags and purses dangling off the side...awesome. We asked the British guy how we would go about finding a boda once we leave this lovely, leafy, protected, safe compound into "real Africa" (we didn't say the last part) and his response, "don't worry they'll find you". Ok man, what does that even mean?! Like how long?! What direction should I move before they find me?! I need more direction!!! But of course we didn't want to be ninnies and ask so we just took our first real steps out of the walled compound and into "Africa". Sure enough, we had barely stepped out of the compound when we heard roaring of engines and saw 4 boda drivers racing towards us as fast as they could, each trying to be the first two there, winning the lucrative "foreign business". The image was nothing short of thoroughbred racing but with motorbikes! We would later learn that often groups of these boda drivers stick around "stages", basically parking spots, and as soon as they see people (I have millions of times wondered how they even saw me because they are either too far away or the angle looks like it curves around because I definitely can't see them...but they ALWAYS see you), they often race towards you. I've never had this formally confirmed but based on my understanding, each stage has a group of the same guys, and I think the "boda race" is almost a piece a friendly competition, a way to entertain themselves. Anyways, these entrepreneurs quoted us 7000 shillings to get to Bujagali, the place where the camp was, even though we were told it should cost 5000. He then dropped to 6000 and I held fast that I won't pay more than 5000 until he begrudgingly agreed, some business better than no business. Super, now I've just pissed off my boda driver that I have to ride with all the way up to camp with my pack on my back. Again, you get so used to playing hard that it becomes habit and you lose perspective of the fact that you are holding fast for less than $1. That being said, this was the first of what I would come to experience regularly in Africa: the battle between the actual money you are arguing over (marginal and it really doesn't matter) and principle of not being given the run around. We are no strangers to foreigner vs. local price which we expect and even partially agree with on the road. The thing is, here I think because there are so many expats, there are pretty well established white person rates, especially for transport so for a lot of things, the cost really is the cost. And then people try to change the cost, sometimes even after you have already agreed on the price like our taxi driver from the airport to Kampala. In Asia, because it is such a transient foreigner tourist population, the cost for everything is all relative with nothing fixed because nobody really knows the real price. So even though, peopled jacked us around constantly in Asia, historically we've been inclined to just screw it and pay the difference instead of wasting time. But here sometimes it feels a bit different because we know and they know the price but we're still playing games and trying to rip us off even higher than the already established and institutionalized rip-off (i.e. foreigner price) which everyone has collectively kind of already agreed on! Either way, it's hard not to feel like a jackass when diddling over such small money but sometimes principle and pride just win out.
Ok the freaking road up to Bujagali was some of the most terrible roads I've ever experienced so far, and for the love we're on motorbikes! We both had our heavy packs on our back (my driver took my small bag and put it on his handlebars which not gonna lie, made me a little nervous to have it out of my reach BUT in this case was the lesser of two evils because I just don't know where I would have put it) while our drivers dodged potholes and puddles on the tarmac until the tarmac just totally eroded out as roads tend to be like here.
Then we started to dodge dirt holes, weave up and down dirt tire ruts trying to avoid loose patches of gravel and other bodas, matatus and vehicles cruising down the "road" passing with a much narrower berth than I would have liked, also trying to avoid inhaling a lung full of dust kicked up by these other vehicles. All the while trying not to roll off the back of the bike every time driver accelerated and the weight of my bag pulled me backwards with a force so strong my feet sometimes lifted off the foot pegs. It was totally uncomfortable and not at all exhilarating and I was entirely convinced I was not mentally gonna make it the 15 minute journey and possibly not physically either. Every muscle in my body ached trying to hold up myself and this stupid bag and I cursed myself for not achieving my highly attempted though completely failed goal of "pack light". It was one of those times when I really had to just come to terms with my own mortality and realize that there is no point in fighting it, finding some sort of a meditative state and just surrender to whatever happens because I, the eternal control freak, was not in control. Bridger on the other hand, I like to think because he was taller and stronger, called it fun. I promised myself I would NEVER do it again.
The camp itself was absolutely beautiful, perched directly overlooking the Nile river, surrounded by lush green forest and monkeys cruising through the trees.
It was a secure compound which means we were behind a giant wall and gate with armed guards, again. Once again, compounds = the norm here. We were to stay in a safari tent overlooking the river which we eventually did, but they sure took their sweet time getting us checked in because they were so busy and it wasn't ready (we waited for like 4 hours) so we just stored our bags behind the reception desk in the lobby.
We had already decided we were gonna go on an evening boat cruise down the Nile and were really hoping we could get our room to freshen up a bit before we went. Alas, this did not happen so with no room and no shame and a bit of bitterness we just started rooting through our bags and freshening up right there by the reception desk... Bridger just dropped his pants standing there in his underwear to change pants and there I was just slapping on some deodorant.
Being the party weekend, there were two boat cruises that night, a sunset cruise from 5-7 and a "piss up" as they called it from 8-10, both included snacks and all you can drink. We decided if we're going to pay, we actually want to see something of the Nile, I really didn't care for a "piss up" and we had scheduled to go whitewater rafting the next day, so we chose the 5-7. Everything started out good cruising down the river at sunset while having some casual drinks and snacks and talking to our new Italian friend Serena who was volunteering in Bujagali.
All while the sun went down around us and the river lit up in beautifulness. And then it was like I was being punished for being so self-righteous and haughty against the stupid drunken 8-10 party crew because somehow both Bridger and I got utterly tanked.
We both remember hanging around on the boat after the cruise was over, chatting with the boat crew and remember the captain saying we can just stay on the next cruise for free. And then we remember talking to some people from the 8-10 cruise as they started flowing down to the dock and then begins... couple black out. To this day, neither one of us has any idea if we actually went on the second cruise or not! I was loaded but luckily Bridger was loaded but wasn't as bad as I so got us both back to bed. I ended up waking up at 2 am with a desperate need to go to the bathroom but of course, camp was pitch dark, the bathrooms were a small hike away and I knew my headlamp was in my purse, though no idea where my purse was. Somehow by some absolute miracle, two things happened: I did not pee myself in bed and I found my purse including all my money, cameras and headlamps that did not fall into the Nile but somehow made it home with me. I assume Bridger gets credit for that as well. I also woke up again at 5 am to what sounded like a call to prayer and then a church service and at that point in a totally drunken haze, realized that we were both so out of it that we never even set an alarm to wake ourselves up for rafting which was set to go in 2 hours. It didn't matter, we ended up being so hungover that we cancelled our rafting trip that day anyways. We spent the entire day doing nothing but eating and nursing our hangovers... and my pride. And trying our best to avoid the massive groups of who knows what, who by no other reason other than that they were in such a big group, were so freaking annoyingly loud. Gah!