Since we hadn't booked bus tickets in advance, we booked a special hire taxi back to Kampala super early in the morning at an exorbitant rate but split between 3 people it was manageable. We were getting dropped off at the bus company of "Jaguar Executive Coach", the company that goes through Kabale (our stop) before going onwards into Rwanda. Knowing what Ugandan (and most other developing countries) coaches looked like, we took the "executive coach" bit with a grain of salt so were kind of blown away when we were dropped off at the bus stop. This was a real bus stop and not a "bus stop". Instead of chainlink fences and vendors everywhere, the buses were in a walled compound that had a ticketing window, a little cafe (I use the term loosely, don't picture like Starbucks or anything) and their very own bathroom (I also use this term loosely) so by Uganda standards we were already doing pretty alright!
We booked our ticket and sat down in the cafe to wait the hour before the bus was scheduled to go, but again, we didn't have high expectations that it would actually go as scheduled. Bridger ordered a coffee which arrived with a cup, a boiling pot of water and a packet of coffee. Thinking it was instant coffee as is standard everywhere, he poured the water in his cup and then the coffee packet contents in the cup and stirred. Too bad it wasn't instant so now his cup was just full of water and coffee grounds. Bridger went up to the counter admitting failure and the lady laughed at him (like mostly at him and not with him if you know what I mean) but gave him another packet of coffee on the house. He looked closely at all the pieces available and figured he'd screwed up because he poured the water and coffee grounds in the cup but the pot actually had a strainer over the spout so what he was supposed to do was pour the coffee packet in the tea pot and then pour into the cup where the strainer would strain out the grounds leaving only the normal coffee in his cup. Feeling pretty confident, he followed this plan and once again, poured coffee grounds directly in his cup. The Ugandan guys at the table beside him were laughing and Bridger said "this isn't right is it?!" and they said "no this is not right!" as they do, but offered no other insight as to what could have gone wrong...again.This time the worker lady came up to the table, shook her head and said "what have you done now?". Distressed she walked away and came back with a handheld strainer and strained the grounds out. Why didn't she just do that the first time?! The fact that she didn't give us the strainer off the bat probably means it is not the way you are supposed to do things so to this day, we really have no idea what was supposed to happen there!
Eventually the bus started boarding and immediately this homeless-like guy swooped in and in broken English, asked Bridger if he was taking the half full bottle of water that he had just bought and obviously planned to take. Totally blindsided by what was happening, Bridger shrugged his shoulders and passively indicated to the guy, "sure, I guess it's yours". He left with the bottle and we were all left standing there dumbstruck about what just happened! Did I say that we suck at Africa?
In executive coach style, we were actually impressed with the bus as far as buses in these parts go. It was still old and ugly and metallic but the seats were big and the 3 of us sat together (one side of the aisle had 3 seats, the other had 2) making it more comfortable, there were seat belts, there were electric plugs in every row, they actually checked our bags and gave us a bag collection ticket aaaaand the bus left on schedule!!! As we would soon find out though, in true African form, the electric plugs didn't work and nobody would ever actually check or collect our bag ticket, just blindly giving us whatever bag we requested. It's all optics around here.
As usual, the bus made a stop midway for a bathroom break...setting a record for the worst on-the-road bathroom of my life. Me and mom ran off leaving Bridger with our bags on the bus. The "bathroom" was literally what looked like a shower cube with a tiled floor but with no drain as you would think of it and definitely no toilet/squatty potty, nothing. I encountered something similar in Thailand on my first trip except that one actually had a drain in the corner you could pee into. What this one did have was a trough along the wall that ran through a hole in the bottom of the wall through to the other stall next to it to, I assume, out the other side into a pile of dirt or something. Awesome, so whoever is next to you gets to watch your river of pee make its way through their "bathroom". You couldn't even pee directly in the ditch because it was right up against the wall so basically you just had to squat and pee on the flat floor as all your pee splashed right back up at you and all over your feet, wtf. Then there was no garbage so, not sure what else to do, I just threw my handy pocket kleenex in the trough where it stayed as I left. Mildly graphic details ahead: Problematically I also had my period and had a tampon in but not sure how I felt about just throwing that in the ditch and leaving it so by process of elimination and the lesser of two evils, I figured we only had 3 more hours to go to Kabale, and though not ideal I could just hold on until we got there. After taking slightly longer than expected to navigate this whore of a bathroom, mom and I ran back to the bus to let Bridger go on his toilet break. Unfortunately this bathroom stop was also a bus stop so, as he was trying to get off, like 30 Ugandans were also boarding, all standing in the aisle, nobody deferring or even slightly attempting to make room for him to get by. After fighting valiantly all the way from the back of the bus to the front and getting off, the driver says to him "what the fuck are you doing?!", pretends to drive away and tells him to hurry up, clearly not impressed that he waited this long to go. Luckily Bridger has a thick skin so he goes anyways, though when he comes back he's just so mad at us haha.
The bus eventually continues on it's way and we go about a km down the road when all of a sudden the bus starts bumping and lurching much like, I would imagine, what those cars look like in gangster rap music videos. I don't think anything of it because massive "speed humps" are common around here but the bus turns around and sure enough, we end up parked right back in the bad bathroom parking lot. We're broke down. Awesome. Ok it sucks, but actually we felt pretty lucky because this was our first bus break down of the trip and we'd travelled on some pretty raggedy buses.
We waited, hoping for a quick fix which was not to come and eventually everyone started getting off the bus and lingering around outside while we waited for the guy underneath the bus with all his tools to fix the bus in the gas station parking lot. Because it was a long distance/scheduled bus to Rwanda, there was actually a handful of tourists on this bus and turns out we had a mechanical engineer on the bus. Not like anyone from the bus company would actually tell us what was going on or the ETA or whether another bus was coming or anything so this guy went and took a peek and his verdict was that it looked like mechanic man was basically trying to replace the clutch. Suuuuper. At this point, with no indication of when/if we would actually get there, I'm starting to re-evaluate my "change my tampon when I get there" plan. So now I have to formulate a new plan that involves not-a-bathroom-bathroom. So ultimately, and stop reading if you hate this story already, I had to pretty well remove said tampon, wrap it in kleenex (seriously, never underestimate the importance of carrying your own packets of kleenex, it's essential!) put it in my pocket and walk around the gas station trying to find a garbage I could toss it in. Nice huh?! So this would be the second time on this trip I had to haul my own used tampon around in my pocket! In the end we sat in the lot in the mid day sun for about 2 hours until the bus was running again. As much as it was a pain in the ass, it was actually quite extraordinary that it could be fixed with no advance planning in the middle of a gas station parking lot in Uganda. I'm not even sure the guy was a mechanic...actually I would go out on a limb and guess that he wasn't. Haha I would also go out on a limb and guess that it wasn't actually fixed but rather, bandaided until the next breakdown or, perhaps too optimistically, when the bus gets back to its home base. Impressive and resourceful nonetheless, characteristics that would become defining characteristics of Ugandans and Africans in general.
It's a good thing the bus broke before we got too far away from civilization because the remaining 3 hours were spent bumping around on a terrible stretch of unpaved, dusty road. We bumped along so hard for so long that a bag fell from the overhead rack and landed on Bridger's head, literally snapping the arm off his beloved sunglasses. So that's 2 for 2 for bags falling on our heads on buses. As Canadians we were almost more traumatized by the sheer lack of interest or apology from the bag's owner than the actual damage, though I'm not certain she even really knew what happened. He would spend the rest of our trip with sunglasses that had one arm taped on with duct tape he had melted together with a lighter (Bridger is incredibly resourceful himself and I stand by the claim that he could fix anything) and therefore, could not actually bend closed. Try storing that baby when it's not on your head...big pain in the butt. In the end it was actually the longest awake bus ride we'd ever been on at about 8 or 9 hours...most that long have been on night buses where we slept half the way. Obviously, never been so happy to get to a place. And I can't believe how rocking my mom is for being openminded enough to take local transportation and still smile after the very first public transportation she went on in Africa broke haha.
We checked into a hostel in Kabale overnight where I'm quite sure the staff girls were smitten with Bridger. They watched him from afar and talked about him. At one point a staff girl came up and stared at him, like actually stared at him, and then, I'm not even joking, stuttered as she asked him if he wanted a beer. He said sure and then she lingered for awhile still just staring at him all doe-eyed! She eventually left, presumably to get the beer, but the beer never came, ever. It was notable enough that we all had a big laugh and once again, we were left to wonder what exactly just happened!
I tried "African tea" for the first time at this hostel and I was sooooo happy to find out that it is essentially a chai latte which I have been missing dearly. Little moments of pure happiness!
After a ton of research on my part, we finally settled to do our gorilla tracking through a place called Bwindi Backpackers, budget accommodation just outside the national park where the price included all transport from Kabale to Bwindi, transport to and from gorilla tracking site and meals. In an added bonus, the owner bought our tracking permits for us, saving ourselves a trip to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to buy them AND because he does this all the time, he got them at a cheaper foreign resident vs. foreign non resident rate so we ended up getting permits for 500USD instead of 600USD. So basically by arranging it all independently, we ended up paying like 650 USD for the entire tracking experience as opposed to like 2000-3000 UDS as part of a tour. Win! The owner came to pick us up in Kabale at about 4:00 pm to take us to Bwindi, a drive I expected to be a short jaunt into the wilderness. Not so!
The route into the park was one of the worst roads ever, basically endless switchbacks perched right on hillsides winding high through mountain tops on roads that had huge rocks jamming up everywhere so we rattled down getting what we would hear several times over the course of our African travels, an "African massage". But it was easy to forget because the scenery as we rumbled through was absolutely beyond breathtaking. Basically the entire area is hills with lush forest and terraced fields up the sides in endless different shades of green. We passed through tons of very, very rural villages on the way in and the sun was setting all around us.
Honestly this is one of the most beautiful places in all of Uganda. And we just kept going and going...awesome in the day time but then as it does, it started to get darker and I became a bit more nervous seeing as how we were on terrible roads perched on the edge of hillsides. Luckily there were no others cars, just motorbikes and I told myself to have confidence in the driver as he does this every day, sometimes multiple times per day. It was crazy though because as it got darker, we started to see more and more people out walking until there were lines of people walking down the shoulder of the road, most carrying big yellow jerry cans. I assume that they were going to fetch water now that it wasn't the blazing heat of the day. This would be a common theme throughout Africa... it almost seems that the streets get livelier around dusk when all of a sudden people are walking everywhere. But with the darkness falling and my thoughts swirling (see below), I felt like everyone's eyes were contemptuous and burning a hole through my heart.
As much as this journey was beautiful, it was also very humbling and actually, somewhere along the way it actually started to feel a little awful, especially as people started to put out their hands as we drove by or yell "give me money!" as we drove by, which we could still hear even though the windows were up. It really felt gross that these people barely have anything to their name and they have to work so hard to survive, walking miles every day because there are very few even bodas around, often uphill, to collect water, growing their own food, many probably never having been on a moving vehicle of any kind in their life, nothing to their name and yet, every day they watch a parade of "rich white people" going by, on their way to drop thousands of dollars to see some animals. I know I'm being dramatic and making everything sound so frivolous but that is honestly how I started to feel driving by, just shameful. And these are the things I would continue to grapple with over the course of our African travels and I still don't have much of an answer for it, though I have put in endless hours thinking about and talking with really smart people about the complexity of the needs as well as aid in Africa. But that's a story for another day.
We finally arrived at the lodge after close to 3 hours where we were greeted by the staff who gave us warm wet towels and a welcome drink before briefing us on what would happen on our tracking day tomorrow. Unfortunately most of it was SO hard to understand because of the accent but much more importantly, because the guy was sooooo soft-spoken! That has been one of the biggest surprises in Africa so far. When we thought of Africa we thought of these big boisterous, powerful, loud African voices but not so...Africans or at least the ones in the countries we've visited, in conversation with you, are very, very soft spoken, almost inaudible at times! It's been so nuts to experience and sometimes I just want to scream for them to scream!
We had booked the dorm but were offered an upgrade to the private rooms for $10/pp more. Mom was so kind that she decided she would just pay for the upgrade so we did it. Except we found out that the rooms were double so we asked if there was a triple room available so we could all stay in one room together and they said ya, no prob and disappeared for awhile. We heard what sounded like a bunch of moving of furniture and when the room was ready we went down and found a double and a single bed but the door barely squeaked past the bedpost on the single bed. So ultimately I think it was a double room and they literally disassembled and reassembled a bed for us to make it a triple room!
Because the lodge is essentially in the middle of the forest, it is pretty basic. Electricity is by generator and only on from 6 pm to 10 pm after which time it is dark and there is nothing else to do but go to bed. This is also the one and only time frame that you are able to charge your devices. Luckily because we arrived late they said they would keep the generator on a bit longer than usual so we could charge our electronics before tracking the next day which was awesome, otherwise, we would have no pictures (future me talking-the only thing worse than the shitty pictures we did get) of the gorillas. Also luckily they had some really awesome solar power lights that they allowed us to take to our room so we could put our stuff together for the gorilla tracking the next day. This was a godsend because since we had arrived after dark by the time we ate and charged, there was no power in our room so we had to gather our stuff for tracking by the dim light of solar jar lamp the evening prior as it would still be dark by the time we left for tracking in the morning. That night with a case of excitement and sheer terror (seriously, they're big and I read a story about how somebody forgot to turn their camera flash off and it scared the silverback so he charged and hit someone and then sat on them! Rare but possible!), I barely slept at all and 5:40 am, still in the pitch black, came all too soon and not soon enough at the same time.
We ate breakfast and got in the car with our driver to the briefing site at about 6:30 am.
As it was getting light we drove along those same rotten roads and those same villages except this time, in the light of day the villagers seemed far friendlier and even smiled and waved at us as we drove by. The music selection of our driver this morning was a 50/50 mix of straight up Christian music and Tupac. Only here!
After about 45 minutes of driving we were dropped at the briefing point within the national park where we met with the UWA rangers who would be our guides for gorilla tracking and got the "what to expect" speech.
We had remained undecided on whether to hire a porter to carry our stuff for tracking as it just seems so exploitative, lazy and a "rich white person" thing to do. But in the end we had decided to hire porters to carry our backpacks so we could just hang out and enjoy the super expensive experience and not worry about carrying anything, especially through the jungle. Each porter costs 15USD but the owner of the lodge assured us that we can give one porter multiple backpacks no problem instead of hiring separate and assured us that it is actually a good thing to hire a porter because it provides jobs for local people. So at this point we let the ranger know that we would take one porter. Before heading out we stopped at the outhouses for one last bathroom break. I had Bridger's phone in my pocket which I didn't even think about until I pulled down my pants and it came flying out, literally bouncing off the toilet rim and landing on the concrete floor. I just about died! Sure enough, the beautiful new screen that he had just replaced two weeks ago was now cracked once again. I didn't even care because I had that precious piece of machinery in my hand because by some stroke of sheer luck or divine intervention, it did not end up down the toilet!! That's all a girlfriend can ask for in these situations! Of course, he was so pissed at me...again.
At this point we all get back in the vehicle along with the guide to drive to the tracking start point which gave us a bit of time to chat with him and have him answer our questions. Gorilla tracking is such a tricky and slightly controversial subject because obviously it is not natural and probably not the best thing for the gorillas to be parading endless groups of tourists through their natural habitat to watch them on a daily basis. That being said they do put some serious limits on your experience--each gorilla group (they are several) can only be tracked by a group of 8 people per day and once you find them you only get one hour with them. On the flip side, because gorilla tracking is SUCH a big money business here in Uganda, it is in Uganda's best interest to invest in conservation efforts to ensure the survival of this endangered species against poaching/deforestation. So even though it's not natural, and some would argue bad for the gorillas wellbeing, gorilla tourism is actually protecting them. Our guide was explaining that there used to be about 500 wild mountain gorillas (cant remember if this was in the world or Uganda) but now their population has grown to 880 which is pretty awesome. Apparently Uganda has about half of the world's population of mountain gorillas within it's borders. Pretty cool stuff!
We drive through the forest and stop at the starting place for tracking where we also pick up our porter who would carry two daypacks through the jungle. As we're standing around, the guide says "here's your porter" and who steps out from the crowd? The tiny young girl in big rubber boots. Ya, that's right the big strapping porter who we were going to not feel bad about giving two backpacks to haul around in the steep jungle forest, he's a she. And not only that, this is actually her first time. Ever! So not the fit, weathered, used to trekking around porter from my imagination but a young, small girl who has never ever done this before. Which makes us the rich white people who are too spoiled to carry our own backpack or pay for two porters. Wow, already on edge about what the right thing was to do around the porter situation, our fate was sealed in this moment...we felt like total shit! But you can't back out now. This was all made worse by the fact that not only was she carrying both our bags, she was carrying a bag with her own lunch as well. Ugh. And then I chatted with her for awhile (she spoke English but it was limited) and found out she was 18 years old, from a nearby village and was on break from school so she is doing this job to make some money. At least when I talked with her I felt a little bit less slimy but I still felt a lot slimy and had to remind myself that this is really, really good money for them. Alright, let's go!