she said (Uganda): "I DON'T EVEN KNOW YOUR NAME!!!"
December 15, 2015
For as long as I can remember from my mid 20's forward, I have always had a really soft spot for Uganda and always had a bit of an inclination to volunteer here someday. Now a few years down the road and I am a certified SLP and casually cruise through google searches like "special needs schools in...", "autism in...", "children with disabilities in..." in basically all the places I go just to check out what's going on with regard to the status of adults and children with disabilities across the world. I do it out of sheer interests sake and also because there is always this idea in the back of my mind that when Bridger goes home after his leave of absence is over, I might continue on solo and try to pick up a volunteer placement as an SLP somewhere along the way in a place that I love. Just before leaving Fort Portal I found a really fabulous looking agency online run by a physiotherapist from the UK basically offering free physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy for Ugandan children with disabilities in and around Fort Portal. The website was impressive so I sent an email basically saying I'm traveling for the next several months but I may be able to volunteer for awhile after the boyfriend goes home IF they would even have a need for that sort of thing and obviously as long as they don't require a specific commitment as I I won't know for sure if I can come or not until closer to the date. The PT said that there was only like 10 SLPs in all of Uganda and there has never been one in the west of Uganda around Fort Portal. Unfortunately I never had a chance to swing by and actually visit but after a few email swaps and a phone call, we agreed that we would keep in touch and I would let her know my thoughts in a few months.
Having to go back to Kampala/Entebbe to pick up my mom at the the airport and being advised that our hotel owner "wouldn't be caught dead on a Kalitas bus" because they have a terrible safety reputation, i.e. the one we took to get to Fort Portal, we boda'd down to the bus park for the only other company that plies this route, the Link bus.
I don't know if I wrote about this before but traveling around here you always read stuff like "get to the bus park early before your departure" so you can load your bag and get your choice of seat. Though this continues to be a total mystery to me because the buses never actually operate on a schedule but just wait around until every last seat is filled. People might have an idea of the times the buses leave but don't get your panties in a knot about as it can pretty well be earlier or later, deal with it. Having been told there is a Link bus that leaves at around 8, we headed down to the bus park around 7:30 to "be early". Our bodas dropped us off and we were immediately shouted at by the bus people to "hurry, hurry" as the bus was literally driving away. So much for "8:00". One perk was that they told us to get on with our big bags so we weren't stuck in the "should we or shouldn't we bring our bags on the bus" debate. We took our seats, once again the only foreigners on the bus, in the only seats available...the very back row which, to our happiness, was empty. This is not surprising because Ugandans hate the back of the bus and it will always be the last filled. They will first sit in the window seats on the left side of the bus where the bags go (obviously to watch luggage on/off because apparently people intentionally steal other people's luggage off the bus all the time; not just foreigners, they steal each other's stuff?! Doesn't that seem like a bit of a gamble? You can't see inside...that person might actually have worse stuff than you! I don't understand) then they will fill up the left side aisle or the right window, seats at the front of the bus and the ones that actually have control of the window first then the ones that do not have open/close power and only then will people move in the back, especially to the back bench. Except for the other day where there was a lone gangster sitting in the back bench but that was an anomaly. Anyways, as it turned out, even though we really didn't have anywhere to put our bags besides with us, we ended up having the backseat to ourselves for the first hour of the 5-6 hour ride which would make it one of the most comfortable intercity buses to date. Now to say that this bus is the "better" bus is not saying much about the other company because it pretty well looks beat to shit from the outside and the inside basically looks like it was constructed out of a giant metal shipping container. It had plastic covered seats, kind of what you would imagine a bed-wetter bed cover to be like. I had an armrest beside me that was essentially a long cubical piece of metal...no fabric or otherwise covering. Super comfortable anyways. But comfort is not why we're on any sort of long distance bus of this trip to date. Interestingly, and not sure whether it was our state of mind or just actually a better company, this bus contained by FAR friendlier people than the first bus!
As the bus rumbled along, I'm quiet certain there was a pastor of sorts in the aisle preaching to the bus because he was speaking the way pastors do and it went like this "local language...local language...local language...hallelujah...local language" for a few hours. Then he gets off and guy 2, similar to guy 1, gets on but this time with one of those like, carnival boom microphones. We assumed he was also a pastor but at points he had the people on the bus in stitches laughing and then he all of a sudden started passing out toothpaste and mouthwash. So he was either a really unconventional pastor ooooor he was a traveling bus salesman.
As all good things do, our time as the solo inhabitants of the back row of the bus came to an end as the bus stopped in villages on the way picking up more passengers until every last other seat was full and our precious back row began filling up one man body at a time until there were 4 men and me back there all mashed up together hot and sweaty, Bridger's bag on top of him at this point. And then a lady gets on later and she mashes herself in the middle of the back row so now we are 6 and even the Ugandans started getting a little pissy at her that she would do such a thing. And if even Ugandans are complaining, that means it's really, really bad!
Eventually we stopped for our mid break pee stop and this time, knowing what to expect, Bridger and I were like a well oiled machine. I knew exactly where to go so I zipped in between vendors who were thrusting all of their goods at me and had the fastest pee before running back to the bus to tag team Bridger who also ran through vendors behind him who, as I was told later, called out "ma'm!" at which point Bridger turned around to a shocked and visibly shaken vendor who quickly corrected to "sir"! As I sat on the bus making the mistake of looking out the window, a.k.a. getting someone's attention because you want to buy, vendors came flooding over thrusting their goods up the window calling "muzungu!" and a variety of other "marketing (i.e. coercion) tactics" to at worst get me talking to them, at best get me to buy, including "muzungu you have money but you won't buy anything!" and "I don't even know your name!".
I smiled and said no thank you to all the offers below (p.s. never buy roadside unpackaged bus snacks in Africa...I've heard many stories from tourists and locals alike who suffered for it later) but it was all in good humor and very social across all parties and all just part of the game in this part of the world.
We finally arrived back in the insane bus park section of Kampala that couldn't look anything more than what you envision when you think of an African city. Not to say all areas of Kampala look this way, they don't but this particular area is like straight out of a movie. Anyways, the bus is crawling through bumper to bumper traffic here and before we get back to the "bus stop" everyone starts getting out and we were basically kicked off the bus just on the street.
So now we're on the street surrounded by makeshift market stands lining the street, gridlock traffic, vendors selling anything you can imagine and endless people filling all the gaps in between and weaving in and out of traffic purposefully to get to where they needed to be.
We knew we needed to get to the taxi park (the one that looked like matatu tetris that we saw from above) and we knew we were somewhere around it but really no idea what direction to go. There were matatu taxis lining the sides of the street as were there a ton just inching forward in gridlock traffic. So with no other options, we, the only people with backpacks on, just started moving, weaving between traffic and periodically stopping by matatus with their windows down to ask what direction for the taxis to Entebbe. All the drivers and passengers were more than happy to help us, thought we were hilarious and/or wanted to chat and/or fist pump us. With each question, chat and fist pump, we got about 10 feet closer where we would ask another and just kept moving like this the entire way to the correct taxi park. It was actually hilarious-- started out a bit intimidating and overwhelming but ended up being so much fun! Definitely one of those moments where I wish that we had a camera video taping us from above because it would have been amazing footage! In the end we made it to the correct taxi park and for the firs time in Ugandan history, there were actual signs telling you where each matatu was going, amazing! With a quote of 4000 shillings, we were the last ones in so left immediately. We drove 5 inches before we were totally stuck in a jam. Obviously, we're in tetris taxi park. Taxis were just running into each other but nobody even flinched or got out of their vehicle...business as usual here. Slowly we made it out of the dirt taxi park onto the road where we also stood not moving in traffic. About half hour later we had finally made it off the street of the taxi park. Not so amazing!
The entire way to Entebbe was stop, start, stop, start, endlessly letting people on and off steady but pretty well always remaining 5 people over capacity. I'll never understand why when we stop to pick someone from the street up, the person who is inevitably going to stop the taxi 20 feet up the road to get off, couldn't have just gotten off when we had stopped anyway. But this is Uganda...it doesn't need to make sense. At one point we pulled into a gas station and people automatically started passing money up to the driver. Evidently, without people paying now (usually you pay when you get off), there was no money to actually buy the gas. Following suit, I passed up 10000 shillings for two (2000 change required) which disappeared for awhile before a lady passed me back two 5000 bills. Now I'm totally confused what just happened because I hadn't paid anything, just got my money back, but in smaller change. We weren't sure exactly where we were to get off in Entebbe but knew we were getting close so passed that 10000 shillings back and managed to figure out when to stop. At which point we grabbed our bags and waited for that 2000 change that never came. The guy insisted "5000 ea" and I said "nope, the guy at the taxi park said 4000 each". Another episode of shaking in my flip flops holding firm for that 1000 shilling change (40 cents?) that really wasn't the point, more to take a stand that you can't agree on the price with someone and then change it along the way! Relatively quickly the conductor relented and gave us our 1000 ea and we were on our way. Ironically, only to get extorted by a boda driver who charged us 2000 shillings each to go like 500 meters down the road to our hostel when we had just paid 4000 to go like 30 km.
We had reserved a triple room in the hostel and an airport pick up for my mom for that evening. We checked into our super cheap but dingy and slightly scary looking room (it had one of those electric water heaters attached to the shower head, cracks and holes in the cement floor and a couch, the kind everyone had in their houses in the 80's) and told the male receptionist that we would look up the flight time to confirm my mom's airport pickup time. A few minutes after this we got a call on my cell phone from a woman asking to confirm our airport pick up time. A little miffed, I told the lady that we just told the receptionist we'll look it up and get back to him in a few minutes! We did and told him and also told him of the other lady who called us. He was equally confused and asked me to show him the phone number which we did and he said, "that's not a phone number for our hostel". Whaaaat?! What is going on?! Back story--we had called to book this hotel/airport pick up a few weeks in advance which was all fine and then Bridger called to confirm our reso closer to the date we would arrive. Anyways, our hostel receptionist called the number that called to try to figure out what was going on...turns out the lady is from a totally different hostel where we also had an airport pick up and one night's stay booked! So somewhere between calling to book initially and calling to confirm, Bridger somehow ended up with two different numbers and had called two different places for the airport transfer/room! At this point I'm totally confused and to be honest, completely incredulous how that could possibly have happened and nobody clued into that something might be off that I just passed the phone to Bridger and said "fix it". So god love him, much like the Philippines hotel booking disaster, when you give him a job to do you can't necessarily count on that he'll do it diligently and correctly in the first place but you can sure count on him to sort it all out when I'm pretty well ostriched, head in the sand!
Mom's flight was coming in at like 10 pm or something so instead of just sending the car to get her, we went with the car and waited outside the airport. Thinking you know, since she's coming to scary Africa in the night no less, she'll probably be a little uneasy, we decided to play a trick on her and hide so she would come out and think nobody was there. In the moment, it seemed like a fun thing to do but as I write this now, that sounds like a really mean thing to do! Either way it didn't work because she walks out of the airport and just calmly stands there waiting. No hyper vigilant eye darting, no look of panic, no going back into the airport, just calm standing. Obviously I'm not my mother's child. It definitely was a surreal moment to not only be in Africa but to be picking up your mom in Africa!
We spent the following day in Entebbe just so mom could have some time to sleep and orient or whatever she needed before heading off the next destination. We slept, we organized, we walked a km to the bank, as you do. I realized that I am just not patient and a good teacher because I just expect everyone to know what I know and take care of their own shit even though logically I know that that obviously that's not possible when you just get to a place as there is lots of things to figure out. Bridger is so much better than me on that front! After chores we headed to the Entebbe Botanical Garden where we walked around the beautiful park and saw tons of butterflies, dragonflies, monkeys and the massive Victoria lake where we stopped for a drink in the raised platform at the shoreside bar.
I never thought I would be a person to enjoy a walk through some trees but it was absolutely gorgeous and a fabulous way to spend an afternoon! And to top it off, on our walk home we saw a full size male turkey just hanging out on the street. I think I have never seen a real turkey before.
The people of Entebbe were also the friendliest we encountered in Uganda so far. Everyone from the matatu taxi drivers to people on the street to children playing in fields all called out to us to say hello, talked to us and/or joked with us. If only this had been our first taste of Uganda maybe we wouldn't have had such a foul taste in our mouths! Entebbe is also an absolutely lovely little city and everything that Kampala is not. It is quiet, it has a ton of green spaces, everything looks perfectly manicured, there is tons of open space, barely any traffic (no prob taking bodas here!) and local people picnicking in the Botanical Gardens. If you just saw Entebbe, you would honestly never even believe you are in Africa because it feels like an upper middle class suburb from home. Turns out maybe it is an upper middle class suburb of Kampala because I guess the president actually lives in Entebbe in the State House. Entebbe definitely has a different vibe than anywhere else in Uganda so far and actually feels like a really livable town!
That evening we ate at our hotel and I made the mistake of ordering a beef stew. I knew but forgot that meat in Africa can't be trusted! In more upmarket places you usually get a meaty, lovely slab or chunks of meat but outside of those kinds of places, you very well might end up with "animal through a meat grinder" meat with whatever comes out going into your supper. I was treading carefully when I pulled out a blob of cauliflower-looking something. So much so that mom assured me that it actually was cauliflower though in the moment I knew that was highly unlikely given the absence of any other veggie in the stew as well as the absence of cauliflower in anything in Ugandan to date. It wasn't cauliflower, it was somehow beef. You've been warned.
We had already decided that we were going to track the endangered mountain gorillas while we were in Uganda. I've been in love with them for as long as I can remember having done a big research project on them in something like 6th grade with my good friend Chelsea in our "Kids For Saving Earth Club". Haha do clubs like this still exist in elementary school today?! Anyways, they live in only 3 countries in the world, only two (Uganda, Rwanda) being viable options for seeing them (the third is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not a place I'll be heading anytime soon) so even though the permit itself was a whopping 600USD, we felt like there wouldn't be many if any other opportunities in life to do it. Problem is the 600USD is only for the permit (and with that, you are not even guaranteed to see gorillas, though they work hard to make sure you do and the chances are really high). Then you have to pay transportation, accommodation and food so many people lob this all up into one tour which costs something like $3000 or something outrageous. We had long since decided that we were going to do it independently which means we would buy the permit ourselves from the office, take a local bus to close to the site and arrange our own driver to take us to the tracking site in the jungle and food which would be like a quarter of the price. Mom was also eager to see the gorillas so the next day we were headed back to Kampala to catch a local bus to a place called Kabale where we would meet the guy who owns the backpacker lodge we booked to stay at out in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the only national park, and a tiny one at that, that gorillas actually live in Uganda. How's that for the name of the forest...sounds wild doesn't it!