she said (Uganda): 12 PEOPLE, A MINI VAN AND A CHICKEN
February 3, 2016
Ooooh getting to Gulu. Our in-transit life is always such a mess. Our plan was to special hire down to the bus park and catch the direct bus to Gulu, all along tarmac roads, arriving after about 4.5 hours. As it would turn out the universe had other plans for us.
We get to the bus station for the bus that our hostel has told us goes direct to Gulu. Nope, it doesn't. Bus company staff tell us the bus to Gulu only goes at 8 am and we missed it, tough. This bus goes to Lira, a town like an hour and some away. Bus company people call over this seemingly random, uninformed other lady who basically tells us we can get on this bus but instead of going all the way to Lira, get dropped off in a junction town called Kamdini where there are "lots of taxis" from there going to Gulu. But decide fast if you wanna do it because this bus leaves in 5 minutes. It was all very chaotic as bus parks are, but with no other options we resign ourselves to trusting total strangers that said plan will actually happen and we wont end up stranded in the middle of rural Northern Uganda. Then as bus is leaving and everything is rather frenzied with the staff grabbing at our bags to load as fast as possible, this lady requests payment for the bus. Once again, with lack of options, we resign ourselves to trusting a total uninformed stranger and pass over our shillings. This could go one of two ways...lady could return with our tickets as expected and hoped ooooor she could actually have no affiliation with the bus company at all and run away with our rather large sum of money. But bless her, she returns with three tickets. One hurdle down. Then the bus company guys want to check our bags...not even joking he pulls out a permanent marker and proceeds to write our names in permanent marker directly on our bags! And then, when asked, mom says her name is Adele and he says "What country is that?"...what?! What does that mean?! I dunno, by this point it's all too chaotic for me so I've pretty well "ostriched" and Bridger has just taken over, another reason to love him.
Reliving this story makes me all the more aware how cool it was that Uganda is primarily English speaking because at least in all the chaos, we could understand each other. Being a former British protectorate or something, though most people speak a local language as their first language, the official language of Uganda is English and it is the language of instruction in schools (though the SLP in me says the calibre of English model is not to the highest degree in many of these schools). So basically that means that anyone who has a decent level of education also speaks English conversationally. So more of less, for us as backpackers, getting around is no problem as there really isn't a language barrier, you'll almost always find someone who speaks English if not everyone around you. Of course, all this changes outside the urban centers into the villages where without access to either education at all or educators that speak proficient English themselves, you may have difficulty communicating, though there is usually always at least someone around who has a basic command of English because it is so, so prevalent. Actually, the crazy thing about Uganda is that it is a country made up of different migrating tribes so unlike most countries, there is no single unifying local language across the country but rather, each region speaks their own language. In Kampala, they speak primarily Luganda. In Gulu they speak Acholi. In Fort Portal it's Rutooro. And on it goes. So in essence and this is totally bizarre, it means than many Ugandans from different parts of the country communicate with each other using the common language of English. Woah.
Anyways, back to the bus. By this point we are by far the last people on the bus and I'm freaking out that again we're going to have to sit in rando places with rando people but luckily there was 3 seats open in...you guessed it, the very back row. Perfect! We initially had the row to ourselves but predictably, this row filled up solidly with every rural stop along the way until we were all packed in there shoulder to overlapping shoulder.
As usual, looking out the window while rolling along in the bus was a welcome treat. Even though the north of Uganda is supposed to be the most impoverished part of the country and known to be not the most beautiful, the scenery was still very lovely. Lots of concrete buildings and homes dotted the landscapes until they started giving way to the classic circular mud huts with thatch roofs, the dominant home of the north.
I braced myself for the inevitable, shitty bathroom stop along the way but our bathroom stop on this bus was so impressive, though I must admit, my standards for this have dropped quite dramatically since the beginning of this trip. By this point in life I 100% expect a squatty potty but if there is one with a bowl instead of just a hole/ditch, a door and a floor not totally covered in pee, blood or wet toilet paper scraps, I consider it a total win. I also must comment on how impressed I am with myself for my adaptability in these toileting situations abroad as I've invented some pretty ingenious toileting positions to suit the varying needs of each toilet...I'm amazed just how many different positions you can assume to get the job done. Today's edition was the unlockable door that wouldn't stay shut which I achieved by facing backwards in the stall, stretched lengthwise so my backwards extended hand could hold the door shut and with tilted pelvis, aim, fire into the squatty potty. Boom. If I had to poop there would have been large problems but luckily in this particular circumstance, I didn't have to. Impressive right? I know.
We also stropped at a little roadside stand and, I'll never understand, the locals on the bus went crazy buying pineapples by the bag. There were pineapples everywhere! There was also this adorable little kid on the bus. When African kids see you, their response will usually be one of two things...big smile and they're in love with you OR they will be utterly terrified and run away. This particular kid saw us and gave us the hugest smile and started walking towards us...until someone dropped 5 pineapples in the aisle directly in front of him and stopped him in his tracks. Seriously, obstruction by pineapple. That actually happened.
The bus kept rumbling along the tarmac road until it could rumble no more because after two hours the tarmac ran out. What the heck, I though this was tarmac the whole way?! So we went slow. And then after that we went nowhere because there was an entire line of traffic just stopped on the road. Forever. So we sat there, so hot, so slow, so crammed and so, so far away still. Even though the journey was supposed to be an easy 4.5 hours on tarmac roads (seriously, NEVER believe this stuff), we were now on hour 4, only about half way to Gulu, not moving at all and still having to get off and transfer to another taxi to get to Gulu. And you never know what transfers can look like around here.
Eventually we started moving again through the countryside until we crossed the Nile River at Karuma Falls, historically the "stop zone" as everything north of here was unsafe because of the extremely dangerous war in the north. Now that the region is experiencing its first years of peace and relative stability in its 20 year history, we carried on through, the only threats being the very ominous baboons loitering all over the road hoping to catch a drop of food from the passing busses as well as the small possibility of plunging into the rapids below. Not long after this we disembarked in our junction stop of Kamdini but not before the only other white guy on the bus informed us that the roads into Gulu are really, really bad and it will probably take us 2.5 hours from here. Are you freaking kidding me?! We don't have 2.5 hours! It was already around 4 pm, we'd been on the supposedly 4.5 hour bus ride two hours longer than that already and we were essentially racing sunset at this point to be there before dark! But too bad, because this bus is going to Lira so what are you gonna do? I'd be lying if I didn't seriously consider taking the path of least resistance, screwing our Gulu plan and just going to Lira instead.
So now we're off the bus in Kamdini, a dusty, rural, very, very Ugandan town and I'm entirely sure we're the only white people here. I wish so much I had a picture to actually show you what this town looked like. Oh man. But as soon as we got off the bus the people were very friendly and when they saw us, immediately helped us out, giving the slightly unnerving direction of "wait here because a bus or minibus will come...but maybe not many now because it is so late in the day". Again universe, that's just unacceptable because, I repeat, we have to be there before sunset! Nonetheless, the locals lingered around trying to flag us down the right vehicle which was a total blessing because, honestly, we had no idea what exactly we were looking for and not sure how we would know what is going to Gulu. Secretly we really hoped that it would be a big coach bus that we're flagging down. So there we were sitting on our bags in the dirt on the side of the road in a rural Ugandan town waiting for something to come, or maybe not to come, so we could (hopefully) finally go to Gulu. Not gonna lie, things weren't looking too optimistic at this point and I was considering the possibility that we got fleeced into just getting on the bus to get our bus money even though there was no pick ups from Kamdini. Just as I started running through possibilities of where in the world we would sleep in this town should it come to that (ok we really were only waiting like 20 minutes), the locals flagged a taxi, a little white station wagon like thing that had 8 seats with 8 Ugandans already in it. But god knows we three and all our luggage were getting in that vehicle and nobody better to make it happen than a bunch of Ugandans with an incredible knack for just making stuff that doesn't fit, fit. So people were shuffled, bags were shuffled and the 3 of us were jammed into the back row with another Ugandan lady. Four in the back row, 4 in the middle row and 3 in the front and a baby. And away we go! For 10 minutes until we were stopped behind another flipping line of cars once again for no obvious purpose. For the love, I saaaaid we need to get there before sunset!!! We waited there for another 15 minutes. I can't even begin to explain the orientation of humans in this vehicle. My knees were bent at an impossible angle, foot wedged wherever there was floor space which was nowhere, the lady beside me had her bag half on her lap half on mine, our shoulders were all hunched over because there is no room for 8 shoulders on the back bench made for 3 max, blood circulation was cut off in multiple bodily places, everyone was touching everyone and by the hell we were some sweaty. In another episode of "you seriously cant write this shit", we pull over to the side of the road again. Ya, we do...to pick up a 6 year old ish child and a fully grown adult lady holding a massive picnic basket and two live chickens. You've got to be kidding me! Like, these people and their chickens are literally going to have to sit on someones lap, this is absolute insanity! Chickens on my lap...insanity! We're burst out laughing thinking this is crazy and there is no way this is actually going to happen, though after the 15 people in a Toyota Corolla story, we're not feeling overly confident in that thought. There was some discussion between the driver and the lady in their local language and in the end I think the lady herself declined to get in which I'm sure we all breathed an audible sigh of relief as we continued on our way. Until we stopped again to let someone out. And just as we were thinking maybe we'd get 3 per bench, we'd stop again and someone else would get in, maintaining the 4 across. Ah the life of share taxis.
Oh my dear, we almost dropped and kissed the ground when we finally arrived in Gulu after about 7.5 hours in transit but still slightly before sunset. The streets were packed with people walking every which way, I'd say one of the busiest we've seen to date. It was definitely one of the most surreal moments of this trip to be driving down the exact dusty main street that I had seen only pictures so long ago while swearing that I would one day walk down that very street.
We pulled into the congested taxi park where we got out and asked our driver where we could get a special hire to take us to our hotel oooooor if we could just pay him to take us which he happily agreed. Now the next hurdle, we didn't actually have a flipping hotel booked. We planned to go to the Acholi Inn, the legendary home of basically all the NGOs and expats of Gulu famously written about in any coverage of the war. Our amazing driver dropped us off and didn't even expect him to pay us, gosh these amazingly generous Ugandans! Walking in was another insanely surreal moment to actually be in this place. Though we were soon flattened because they were fully booked. Damn it! So again, I'm pretty well "ostriched" again and since it had been such a long day, Bridger is practically just begging to the receptionist to just book us another cheap hotel room somewhere in this town so we don't have to walk all over with our packs trying to find something else. It didn't seem promising at first because she just rattled off a list of a few options and it seemed like she was gonna send us on our way to check them out on our own, but then things took a turn and she ended up physically calling a hotel, booking a room for us and arranging a hotel van to come pick us up and take us there. It was such a needed blessing at that point in the day.
It's crazy because Gulu is definitely NOT a touristy town as very, very few tourists would come this way just to visit for lack of anything really to see in the area. But it is basically the hub for NGO workers, volunteers and interns because of the war so surprisingly, it actually had rather large infrastructure to host foreign people. Ironically where most of our other hotels in Uganda so far were pretty rough around the edges, this one was new, clean, had a tiled floor, new bathroom complete with a shiny toilet, brand new fancy bug nets, a flipping tv aaaaaaand AC, a first in Uganda! And it had relatively reliable, relatively fast wifi, delicious food and free breakfast. We laughed to ourselves that we had to come up to the remote northern town of Gulu, the historic safehaven of a war ravaged area that is rebuilding and actually found everything that we couldn't find in more mainstream Uganda.
We checked in and went for dinner in the hotel where we met our lovely server Michael who we tipped generously because he was just so awesome.
And then we went to bed.The next am we had our big plan to have an epic sleep in. Not possible though because the hotel reception called us by 7:30 am to tell us that breakfast is served. Even by 7:30 am, we were the very, very last guests to arrive, good lord. Another evening we would also go grab dinner at our hotel restaurant and Michael, by this point, our most lovely favorite person actually decided to not go home but stay a bit longer so he could serve us (Mom was so charmed by this, Bridger and I were well aware that he likely was charmed by the high probability that we would tip again given that we were the only foreigners staying in the hotel, whatever). At one point during dinner Michael just sat down at our table and chatted with us about life and all things Gulu and Uganda.
In another crazy surreal moment, we saw a random Ugandan walk by with at shirt that said "I love the LRA" in big letters, which obviously took us by surprise. Until we saw the smaller letters underneath that said something like "they are our children and it's not their fault" paying tribute the grim reality of the history of child abductions/soldiers in this area as well as the air of forgiveness and reconciliation that, at least to our outsider perspective, pervaded this region.
Our other goal outside of just checking out Gulu was that we needed to somehow book a safari to one or two of Uganda's national parks, something that had proven incredibly challenging to date as nothing was booked and somethign that would continue to prove incredibly challenging given the fact that there really isn't much by way of tour operators in a town not frequented by tourists. It was getting to crunch time because we literally needed to go within days because we had a flight to Rwanda booked but I literally spent hours on the internet and phone emailing/calling/googling to find something affordable and available to no avail. I was getting pretty strung out at this point thinking that maybe safari'ing just couldn't happen but was holding out hope for my last ditch effort... I had found one tour company called Gulu Tours that was based somewhere in town so we wandered around trying to find it. Along the way of not finding it, we stumbled into this incredible internet cafe with Mac desktop computers AND they were actually powerful enough to open the blog editor so I was able to get two posts uploaded before the network no longer worked. Again, who knew that we had to get totally off the beaten track of Uganda away from the tourists and mainstream places to get everything we had ever dreamed of (aka AC and working computers)?! Man we were happy. It also gave Bridger (I was swamped sorting out blog and safari stuff) the opportunity to apply online for permission to obtain our Rwandan visas on arrival which required your passport details a few days in advance at which point you would be sent an email saying something along the lines of visa on arrival is approved/print this paper and show it to Rwandan immigration upon arrival (which we know because we had already done this project way back when we had a flight booked from Dubai to Rwanda and then promptly changed it when Bridger got an extension on his leave of absence). From our prior time applying for this (they were expired now) we got our approval letter in only a couple of days which we still had time for before our flight. Having no wifi prior we were definitely cutting it close hoping that the approval would be back before our flight but we definitely waited too long for peace about it all.
Anyways up to this date I had totally failed to find something suitable for a safari...the budget safari company was full, another reputable company was too expensive, another couldn't arrange it on short notice, another is only based out of a small town just outside of Murchison Falls national park and now I couldn't find the office of Gulutours anywhere in this dusty town and it's not like there are any other tour operator offices to just pop into. It was starting to feel like maybe we would never be able to safari out of Gulu and we would have to just head back to Kampala in defeat, safari-less.
Gulu was an absolutely amazing place. Despite having the reputation of hottest, ugliest part of Uganda and nothing to do by way of typical tourist attractions, we were more than happy just to explore the streets and feel the incredible energy of this city.
Even though Gulu is the largest urban centre in the north of Uganda, it felt quite small and it was incredibly easy just to navigate the centre of town on foot. The city was among the busiest and busliest we had been to. People were everywhere, always. Remarkably, this post-war conflict area also felt safer than any other area we had been to in Uganda so far. I wondered if maybe it was attributed to the fact that we'd been in Uganda for a few weeks now and got our feet under us a bit more (i.e. not operating under a constant state of "Africa will kill you" hyper vigilance) but I do think there was also something more to it, even now as I write (god help me) like 6 months later. I just felt like there was an amazing energy here and was a place you could let your guard down a little bit and not fear scams, theft etc. And my gosh the people here, despite the history of conflict in the region, were the most friendly of anywhere in Uganda by far. They were all smiles, very welcoming, everyone asks you how you're doing to an even higher degree than the rest of Uganda, people make jokes with you in the street and they will literally go out of their way to hep you. To the point where we asked a lady selling cell phone minutes at a little wooden shack where the GuluTours office was and she actually just left her shack and walked us there personally. Good thing, because we never would have found it EVER because it was inside a cell phone shop with a very, very small sticker with GuluTours written on it on the front of the cell phone sales desk haha. Anyways, even in spite of the relative lack of attractions in Gulu per se, we absolutely loved to just "be" there. We found a perfect little craft shop with great prices and some pretty cool homemade musical instruments.
We chatted with this GuluTours company that evidently wasn't really a company, just more of a side-job of the cell phone salesman and (I) pegged him with questions to which he responded that he'll make some calls and email me back. The email would never come. For the LOVE why can't I get a flipping safari nailed down!!! We were toiling between going to Murchison Falls, one of the largest most trafficked park in Uganda or heading to a much more remote, little visited park in the very north of Uganda close to the Sudanese border called Kidepo. Even though Bridger nor I could actually concretely make a decision one way or the other, I think we both secretly hoped Kidepo, even though it was farther, harder and less quantity of animals, would work out. But at this point I was ready to not choose any more but just take whatever flipping options I had which were, at this point, none. Enter freakout, meltdown mode...again. I hate planning stuff.
Having previously known nothing about safari's or how they work I've become very informed on such things these days. The thing is, most people "tour up" for these because even if you can get public transport to near the park, you still need to have your own vehicle to get into the park and you especially need your own vehicle to do what are called game drives, where you drive through the park looking for animals. You can't walk that shit so by some way, shape or form, you need a vehicle. I had almost entirely given up on visiting Kidepo (the harder and more remote of the two) and maybe Murchison when I, the researching genius if I do say so, made one last ditch effort to find some way to do a flipping safari. I thought maybe instead of a tour we could do Kidepo independently by catching a coach bus to the next town called Kitgum, staying overnight and then hiring our own special hire taxi from there to the park and then hitching a ride into the park/doing some game drives on a UWA ranger vehicle. So I called UWA to see if they do game drives and they said yes for 90USD...expensive...but possible! Then I called this hotel based out of Kitgum known as the source of on the ground information (again, tourists do not go here) except to pass through in their safari vehicles onwards to Kidepo. She essentially said unless you have your own vehicle, don't come up because the amount you would spent hiring a special hire out of Kitgum, and these were her exact words, "will crush you". Having failed on my last ditch effort, I was really, really ready to throw in the towel when she said she knows this guy in Kampala who will drive from Kampala to meet you wherever you are and take you wherever you want to go for a very reasonable daily rate. So I had Bridger call him and he gave us a decent price so we snapped him up so fast, with an added bonus being that since he was coming from Kampala, he would need to go back to Kampala so we could grab a ride back fro free and avoid a repeat performance of the god-awful bus ride that was Kampala-Gulu. It was gonna be a total whirlwind and ALOT of driving and moving around but safari was gonna happen after all! Not only that but somehow with our own private driver we were able to wrangle a whirlwind trip to both Kidepo and Murchison Falls for the last few days that mom was in the country (because we were straddling two countries around the time she was here, we asked her to buy a flight from Calgary to Uganda and then we would cross from Uganda to Rwanda and then she would buy another one way from Rwanda to Calgary). It literally was the most intensely scheduled trip of this trip with not a moment of wiggle room to screw up and it went something like this: Leave Gulu and head 7 hours to Kidepo, do a game drive, sleep, do a game drive, sleep. Drive 5 hours to Murchison, take a cruise down the Nile to the waterfalls, sleep, game drive, drive back to Entebbe to catch our flight to Rwanda. Sounds simple enough...