she said (Uganda): "DEAR ADELE, PLEASE ATTACH YOUR HOTEL RESERVATION..."
March 23, 2016
Ok, it's 4:30, we're on our way to Entebbe, should be there by 9:30 with more than enough time to check in and catch our flight out of the tiny Entebbe airport.
Since we hadn't paid for the safari trip yet, the plan was to drop by an ATM on the way in and stop by the company office in Kampala to meet the boss Ronald and pay up. We kept driving...and driving...and driving until it was pitch black but we never seemed to get closer to Kampala. I think David, saddled with the monstrous responsibility to get us to the airport for our international flight (even though it was totally our fault for scheduling so flipping tightly) must have been feeling this too as he was literally pedal to the metal the entire time. And then we finally hit Kampala at maybe 8:30 on a Sunday night, and I'm not even joking one bit, get stuck in a massive traffic jam in Kampala. Like one of epic proportions and we craaaaaawl for an hour. And then the plan changed, we were no longer going to go to the office in Kampala but Ronald would drive to Entebbe ( maybe an hour ish drive) and meet us at the side of a road that we were gonna pass anyways in order to do the money exchange. This should have been our first clue that even our Ugandan counterparts were feeling the crunch. Our initial plan was to take out the remaining money we would need in Entebbe on the way to the airport but David, again unspokenly feeling the crunch and not feeling overly optimistic that the ATMs in the small leafy suburb of Entebbe will be in service, decided it is better if we stop in Kampala. So goes the time in life when, against all better judgement but with a total lack of any alternative, we took large sums of money out of a downtown Kampala bank at 10 pm looking diligently over our shoulder.
We cruise away from the bank knowing we are really, reeeeally cutting it close now so in an attempt to save precious minutes of airport processing time, we decide to open our email and cue up those mandatory immigration visa papers on our cell phones. I actually didn't need one because I had a different visa than mom and Bridger so it was just them. Bridger already had his glorious piece of paper that said something like "you are authorized to obtain visa on arrival at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda" downloaded on his phone from when he had checked earlier, triumphantly declaring that we got our visa approval. I used my 3G internet to load mom's email on my phone and as expected, she also had the email from the Rwandan government in her inbox which I promptly downloaded. Only instead of saying "you are authorized to obtain visa on arrival at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda" as expected, this one actually said this: "Dear Adele, could you please attach your hotel reservation for your stay in Rwanda so we can confirm your approval for visa on arrival?". You've GOT to be fucking kidding me?!!? Here we are on a mad dash to even get to the airport for our flight to Rwanda, and her visa was never even processed and now she doesn't even have proper visa clearance!!! So not only are we going to show up at the airport super late for our flight, we're going to be showing up without the essential immigration requirements. Here Bridger checked his email and got his confirmation and assumed that all was good without actually looking at mom's and since we had such limited wifi over the last few days we didn't concern ourselves much with checking email because our greatest concern was getting our paperwork back from Rwanda before we flew and that criteria, to our knowledge, had already been met. Until now, where for the love of God we were supposed to send a hotel reservation confirmation to them days ago so they could also approve her visa on arrival. And for the love, do you think we even had a hotel reservation?! No of course we didn't!!! Ok that's not true, yes we did but that was done by Joe-Blow cheap hotel over the phone with no confirmation, nothing, only a verbal confirmation that yes they'll keep a room for us! So we are literally going to show up in Rwanda immigration without the proper visa clearance and plead ignorance. Yep, that's the plan. That is the very, very stupid plan. But at 10 pm on a Sunday night, that's the only possible plan. I am going to hurt Bridger.
So Bridger's managing, mom has no idea the gravity of what just happened and I'm absolutely losing my shit. Like, for me, I'd usually be at airport with 3 hours to spare for international flights, and you'd better believe I'd have all my visa requirements diligently checked off. I'd rather wait 2 hours doing absolutely nothing bored out of my tree than be all strung out having to rush. By this point, I've more than clearly told Bridger that I'm checking the hell out and staying far out of the way on this one while he tries to explain to the powers that be what happened and tries to get us out of this mess and on to that flight. These types of things are always Bridger's jobs in our life together given that he can still function under conditions of chaos in addition to the fact that he has no sense of shame. Both of these criteria are, as anyone who knows me knows, not met by yours truly.
So after a whirlwind trip of 4 days and approximately 35 hours of driving across them, we finally roll in to the airport...at 11 pm for our 11: 55 international flight. Yep cruising in with less than an hour to go without the proper visa requirements. Good start. We roll up to the counter but are stopped before we can even get there by an incredibly stern looking lady asking to see our Rwandan visas please at which point I knew this was the beginning of the end. We passed over mine and Bridger's visas first, hoping that two legitimate visas would earn us a freebie or something (when has that EVER been the case at immigration but again, out of options!). Or at the very least, stall for as long as possible and hopefully by the time she actually looks at mom's we'll be so close to the flight that she'll just get sloppy and wave us on. Seriously, that was our plan, shitty right?! Bridger to his merit, gives a credible performance of total ignorance while I'm "ostriched". Stern lady pretty well says tough, you're not flying. We beg so she asks another guy who says that maybe if we can get our hotel to email us confirmation, proof that we have a hotel booked, then they could maybe let us board the plane. So now it's 11:15 and I'm on the phone with the hotel receptionist who barely speaks English trying to explain that we're at the airport in Uganda leaving to Rwanda but they won't let us board unless we have proof we're staying there so can she email us confirmation, like now or better yet, 5 minutes ago. She says sure, except she needs to get someone else to write it. I hang up and manically refresh my email every 12 seconds hoping for our last hope to come through. After about 10 minutes and like 297 page refreshes but no email, the lady comes to tell us that it's too late, the plane is leaving...without the three of us. Nooooooooo!
So after everything we went through to make the flight, we officially missed said flight. The lady was a super bitch though we had to remind ourselves what kind of entitled pricks we must have looked like cruising into the airport for our international flight with less than an hour and without proper visa requirements, yet had the gall to be pissy at her haha. Under normal circumstances none of this would be the end of the world, except, under these circumstances it kind of was because mom had a very expensive one way international flight from Rwanda to Calgary...leaving not tomorrow but the next evening soooooo we really for the love of God needed to get there asap!!
Ok back to business, we have completely and unequivocally missed our flight. I'm not one to just be missing flights so what are the next steps here, I dunno! Lady says we have to go out of departures and into arrivals to the RwandAir counter to rebook our flights. At this point we're not sure if we basically just lost all of our money or what. Not my favorite way to spend the hour of 11 pm, but hey, what are you gonna do. But first we had to pass through security to get out. Now who would have thought security on the way out would be almost worse than on the way in. We got grilled as to why we weren't flying and our bags actually had to go through security to leave haha. And as we were standing around explaining our outlandish case, an airport worker came by and plunked a big old bag of white powder on the counter right in front of us. Even though I'm quite certain none of us are drug smugglers, a little unnerving nonetheless.
We go up to the RwandAir ticketing office but the lady is not there because I guess she is also the one who gets the plane off the ground. So we, three rather destitute souls, sit on the ground on the upper level of the Ugandan airport being eaten alive by mosquitos waiting for this lady to come back and tell us what's up.
It's midnight, we're exhausted, we just missed our flight, we have no Rwandan visa, maybe we'll be losing all our money and mom has a flight to Canada, officially now that it is the next day, tomorrow. Eventually lady comes back and we breathe sighs of relief when we don't lose our money, we just have to pay a $75 change fee across the 3 tickets. Though in the end we can't formally book our tickets now anyways without risking another $75 change fee because we still have that pesky little issue of how mom, the one person who actually HAS to get to Rwanda, doesn't have a visa. So basically we're gonna need to try to get her a visa to Rwanda, you know, the same day as we fly to Rwanda. No problem. But hey, one thing at a time. So were still in the airport, it's now 1 am. Oh this is fun. Ok next steps, we can't stay in this mosquito ridden airport because the airport security people are just short of prodding us out the door with tasers I think, so now we have to try to get a hotel for what is left of the night. Shoot me.
We get out that handy guidebook and start calling away (by some freak of nature I still had some cell phone credit left thank the heavens, though my battery was dwindling away) everything listed in there. Everything cheap is full and everything available is expensive. To be honest, I'm surprised anyone even answered the phone at that hour because it's not like these are like the Best Western or something with 24 hour proper reception coverage. Pretty well resigning ourselves to pay like 60USD or something or physically fight the security guards to let us sleep in the airport, Bridger has an incredible flash of brilliance that (almost) redeems himself for the visa screwjob...What about that place that he had somehow accidentally booked a room/airport transfer for mom when she arrived initially, let's call there?! How incredible, they had room and it was in our budget. So in a wonderful twist of fate where we benefitted from an earlier error, off we go in a taxi at 1:30 am through the dark streets of Entebbe. Before getting in the driver assured us he knew where the hotel was so we drove and drove and drove into the dark, completely empty suburbs of Entebbe...not gonna lie, we were a tad bit uneasy. Eventually we stopped...at a blatantly wrong hotel though when we say "no this is not it", guy is still confident he knows where it is and tries again to another incorrect hotel. My phone had 14% battery and not wanting to play this hotel whack-a-mole game at 1:30 am, insisted that we just cut our losses and Bridger phones the hotel who can give the taxi directions. He does and turns out the hotel is in the complete opposite direction. Listen, taxi drivers will NEVER tell you they don't know where they're going, they'll literally just go at it like this, play the probability game with places they know tourists go until hopefully they hit the jackpot. My face is about to explode.
We did not get kidnapped and/or robbed by the taxi driver and we get to the hostel at 1:45 am. Once connected to wifi, we found that the email came through from the other hotel we had booked via phone...it was a plain old white email with a few sentences and spelling errors. Not something you'd feel confident sending immigration as proof of hotel reservation when you have less than 24 hours to get a visa, book new flights and fly. So this hellish day is not over yet... now we needed to find and book a proper hotel online so we could have something official to send immigration as proof of hotel booking so we could continue the visa application process. So Bridger and I are sitting in the common area, totally alone at 2 am, fighting the slow wifi to try to find any official and affordable accommodation in Kigali, a very unaffordable kind of city. And everything is pretty picked over because after all, we are looking for...today. The other problem is that we literally have to buy a hotel for tonight to show immigration because we hope to fly there today BUT if we can't get ahold of immigration and we can't get a visa immediately today, we can't go to Rwanda today in which case we cant stay at this hotel we booked for today. We also can't cancel it on such short notice. Sooo if we don't get the visa, it's good bye more money. Risky.
We settle on a place for two nights for 6 people for, choke, 120USD, send the confirmation page to Rwandan immigration and finally crawl into bed at 2:30 am, almost 24 hours awake. And set our alarm for 7 am because you know, there's still that annoying visa situation to work out though we were both secretly hoping that we would wake up first thing in the morning and they would have already gotten back to us, making our job in a few hours, infinitely easier.
So we wake up first thing in the morning. All our dreams didn't come true because nothing from immigration, big F. So we call immigration (thank the world for my Ugandan SIM card or we would be totally screwed) and by some stroke of incredibleness, someone actually answers the phone. First barrier down. Bridger explains the entire situation with particular emphasis on the fact that mom has an international flight tomorrow out of Rwanda so we basically need the visa in 5 minutes from this minute so we can arrive today. So you know immigration guy, we're really stupid but basically drop everything you're doing so you can attend to our demands right.this.instant because we need it. Doesn't sound very good. By the graciousness of the world, the officer was also gracious and said if you don't hear anything from us in an hour, call back. So we wait and wait sitting around the hostel. Refresh email....refresh email...refresh email...oh wait it's only been 13 seconds...slap your own hand every time you try to refresh email after another 13 seconds and at least wait one minute...and onwards. Nothing. So Bridger calls back. This time they say that yes, they will send it over today within the next 4 hours by 3:30 pm. Great! Problem is that this is Africa and things tend to run on their own schedule so we're not quite willing to bank on this promise quite enough to go ahead and book new flights at a) the risk of this African promise not coming through today and having to cancel our flight for once again another $75 change fee b) booking too early in the day and the visa isn't back yet (i.e book the 3:30 flight but visa doesn't come through until 5:00) so we still can't fly and again, another change fee. So we sit and wait and actually just pray that by the time we have that visa in our email that there are actually flights left today to book. Can't move forward on anything because everything depends on everything else. As we waited, we realized that the 5:00 flight was now sold out so very best case scenario, we'd have to take the 11:00 pm flight. We sat at that hotel all afternoon waiting and sure enough, at 2:30 pm we get that beautiful email. Ok next steps.
Now knowing that we can in fact fly today, Bridger jumps on a boda back to the ticket counter at the airport to re-buy our tickets and pay the change fee while me and mom hang out in the garden reading. Ok I read...until one of the young staff guys came up and started chatting with me. And it quickly became evident that this was not just a friendly chat for no purpose. See the thing is, sometimes Ugandans hope/expect that white people will just give them money. And the other thing is that sometimes Ugandans think they're being really subtle when in actual fact, they are really being shockingly transparent. But they have no idea. This guy started out the conversation and literally suggested, in as many "subtle" ways as possible that I should give him money. He asked about my family and then told me how he's the oldest of his siblings...and then that he used to get money from a sponsor agency every month but then it turned corrupt so the money doesn't come anymore. Somehow we got talking about the Entebbe zoo...well, "he always wanted to go to the zoo but he has no money". "Oh you have an iPad, what does an iPad cost?" and then he promptly converted that to Ugandan shillings for me (somewhere circa one million). Then, "he heard that people in Germany get all of their education and medical care paid for and just out of curiosity", he wondered if our government in Canada pays for medical and education. It was actually one of the weirdest conversations I've had to date because, literally everything went back to money. Even seemingly unrelated things would somehow come round to the money. And on better days, I probably would have felt sad and it would have sent me into my classic existential spin, however, today for the love of God I just wanted to read my book. I tolerated this politely for awhile, thinking eventually it would just run its course and I would be easily released. This did not happen. It was truly awe inspiring how many different ways he could creatively bring any topic round to money. Finally I just said (probably driven by both sleep deprivation and being all strung out about the visa situation) "excuse me, I'm going to read now".
Meanwhile, Bridger hit yet another snag at the airport, he's told that "right now there is no tickets in the same ticket class available but come back at 8 pm to check if there ends up being tickets in the same class/print your tickets. If theres none in the same class you'll have to pay the difference in fare plus the change fee. But don't worry, you are definitely booked on the 11 pm flight and there will be some available in your class". Wtf?! What does that mean?! What do you mean there is none now but probably later there will be some?! We need to get these tickets NOW! I hate you.
I guess at a certain point when you've done everything you can do, you just kind of resign yourself. With nothing left to do but wait we hung around the hostel playing cards and eating dinner until it was time to leave back to the airport for the 8 pm time. This time we arrived 3 hours ahead of departure with visas in hand, yet I was still feeling very tentative from last night's failure. And basically our margin of error at this point in time was 0 so we had a lot riding on all going as planned. Thankfully, in the happiest moment in the last 24 hours, we got our flights in the same class so no extra money.
And we continued to sail through security, immigration (mean lady was not there tonight, thankfully) and now have 2.5 hours to kill in the Entebbe airport, which as you can imagine, is not very big. It didn't matter, we were flying tonight...we were getting on that damn 50 minute nightmare flight to Rwanda!
Perhaps it's a good thing that the last hours in Uganda were plagued by such desperation that we would have done anything to get out of there so when it all worked out, we were filled with an enlightening sense of relief. Because if not, I'm not sure that we could have stomached leaving otherwise. It was definitely a slow start to Uganda but somewhere along the way, a deep love for this country like no other country before it, seeped in to our lives. I'm honestly not even sure how it happened because both Bridger and I were exhausted and disappointed on first arriving and seriously considered cutting our loses and getting out of there. It's unexplainable really but slowly, constantly and almost undetectably we became so enamored with Uganda, it's people and everything about it that it quickly rose to the highest ranks of countries visited ever. Not only is this country by far one of the most lushest, greenest and gorgeous countries I've ever been to, it has a diversity rivaled only by Turkey. In terms of scenery, Uganda has it all except beaches...rainforests, waterfalls, agriculture, dry and dusty, classic African cities, village life, mountains, valleys, volcanic crater lakes, other lakes, the Nile river. There is SO much and again, incredibly diverse sights and things to do in this country you will never get bored. It has your fill of incredible exotic animals, relaxing, history, hiking, partying, adventure activities and if all that fails you, just do nothing but wander and get immersed in Ugandan life which is equally as wonderful. And the thing is, as far as independent backpacking goes, Uganda is as good and charming as it gets. Just by nature of being in Africa, it's already a bit off the beaten track as it is, and most of the "white people" who come through are either volunteers/interns or on a package safari tour so there are very few people just backpacking through. Which as far as travel experiences go, gives a place a very unique and very "real" feel. In spite of the rough start and crazy day to day things that went wrong, in the end we (even mom!) absolutely LOVED our 5 weeks in Uganda and could easily have stayed longer. Some of the highlights of our trip so far ended up being in this country and I think all three of us will remember it fondly for the rest of our lives. Ahhh, tear!