When I returned to the UWEC after traveling, I hadn’t showered in 3 days and hadn’t peed in 14 hours, having nibbled strategically throughout the day making the epic trek from Kabale back to Entebbe. When I traveled to Fort Portal with my local friend, he briefed me on what the experience would involve -- taking a taxi from Entebbe to Kampala and a bus from Kampala to Fort Portal. And he advised me with some supremely helpful warnings. One of them is that I would have to “hold it” for the duration of travel. “Do you think you can do this?” he asked me. A feeling not unlike dread came over me.
Unfortunately, that day traveling to Fort Portal turned out to be the day I fell sick with intense stomach pains and nausea. Robert was a trooper helping me get through the day, buying me a plastic bag from a food vendor for a barf bag, and such. (that action was the result of me asking him if he'd be embarrassed if I barfed out the window of the bus; "yes," he said) Thankfully, I never had to actually use that but I felt comforted knowing I had one in my possession. But anyway, there was actually one pee break on the bus out from Kampala, about an hour into the trip. Robert had informed me ahead of time what this break would be like … if I’d been by myself, I would have had no clue why a stampede of people suddenly exited the bus in the middle of nowhere and ran into the bushes. This was the break: everyone ran down a dirt road lined with bushes and staked out a little spot in the bushes to relieve themselves. Too funny. China was funny with the rows of bare bottoms lined up in the bathrooms (holes in the ground) of the train stations. But this was a row of bare bottoms lined up along the bushes outside. Hopefully nobody lives down that road … doubt they’d appreciate a herd of people peeing along their driveway. Well, who knows ... “This is Uganda,” as everyone here is wont to say about all the Third World aspects. I suppose it might be par for the course.
When I told my friend that I’d ridden buses in Peru that had bathrooms inside them, and that long-distance buses in America had them, he was incredulous.
“Inside the bus??? You’re joking!” Then a few minutes later he exclaimed again, “Inside the bus? Wow, I can’t believe that.”
I get a kick out of telling him about some of the comforts of the world beyond his, because he is so wide-eyed with wondrous disbelief. He said, “One time a mzungu told me that on airplanes there is a television on every seat for every passenger. Is this true?” As if it was a fable or legend.
But I have my own questions that elicit bemusement and outright laughter. As we were traveling (and I’d noticed this earlier traveling to/from Murchison), I noticed that there were many roadside shops selling wooden bed frames. But that was pretty much the only woodwork and the only furniture besides couches I saw (sitting next to the road, gathering dust while on display …). Never any tables or chairs, which seemed to me a natural thing to make from wood along with the bed frames. So I asked if people in Uganda had tables and chairs inside their houses. I knew this was a funny question when I asked it, but that’s the beauty of having friends here – you feel OK asking the most ridiculous questions. So of course my friend laughed, but actually the answer was “typically, no.” These items are pretty far down on the list of priorities for the average Ugandan family struggling just to keep themselves fed. So a bed frame is the first and often only furniture they purchase. Other things like pots, pans, spoons, clothing, etc. take much higher priority than tables and chairs. In fact, my friend claims that in his rented room in Entebbe, the bed is the only thing inhabiting its 4 walls, plus a radio and small cooking stove (like a camping stove).
My one piece of personal advice to anyone traveling independently in Uganda, if you’re on a budget and have to make choices with your money as I do, spend it all on retaining a private driver ... sleep in shitholes and eat dirt (washed down with a Nile Special if you’re wealthy enough). Move over Chinese trains, Uganda is now my new source of transport anecdotes. Public transport here is doggone near one tick beyond the line of my personal tolerability index.
One way to amuse and distract myself while riding public transport after the paternal presence of my friend became a void in my subsequent travels, was to compose blog entries in my head to describe the host of personal inconveniences I was experiencing. The list would have been extensive, and, if I may say so, at least a little witty, but then I began noticing some strange events around me as the bus was making stops. Nearly every lap around me, in my row and the 2 in front (comprising a total of 11 seats), had a small child on it (and 2 older ones on the floor in the aisle), and I presumed this indicated a lot of parents were onboard with their respective children. But as adults started getting off at various stops, they collected children from all over the place before leaving. One time, the girl beside me who had been holding a sleeping child, held up the little boy to a woman who had extricated herself from the row to exit. I presumed the two women were traveling together and the one beside me handed her child off to her companion so she could also extricate herself from the seats. But no, the other woman held the child on her hip and got off the bus. The one beside me then turned to me and said, “I’m free!” In the end, there were only 3 mothers and they had farmed out their children to complete strangers to hold so all the seats could be filled with paying adults (as the bus conductor insisted).
Having gotten on at a midway point with only a few seats available on this particular leg, I had been stuffed by the conductor guy into the last available seat (“seat”), literally crammed into the middle seat on the back row. It was so tight that later when he came back to ask for my ticket, it was impossible for me to insert my hand between my thigh and the lady’s thigh next to me to fish it out of my pocket. As he saw me struggle in vain to find enough room in that back seat to accommodate one quite-dainty hand, he said, “It’s OK,” and moved on. If for some reason I had had a small hand glued to the outside of my thigh, I would not have fit into that seat. Anyway, add to that many other discomforts, but yet, I did not have to hold somebody else’s child on my lap for several hours. And this was obviously par for the course. Nobody was batting an eye over it.
Once in a taxi (which is a minivan used mainly for transport over short to medium distances) which was similarly crammed, two older children in the front seat were holding two younger children on their laps … again, I was to find out they were not related. The little girl on the lap was beside herself with boredom. She started playing with the stuffed rabbit hanging from the rearview mirror, but the taxi driver shooed her hand away from his talisman. Then she started putting her hands on the windshield, again to be shooed away. Then she played for an admirable amount of time with her fingers … don’t know what was running through her cute head while moving them up and down one by one, then all together, then clasping and unclasping, then waving in the air to no one. Finally, she took to staring at the mzungu behind her as a form of entertainment. I would have tried to play with her, but again, I was so smashed against the window, I literally couldn’t move.
So anyway, back to the beginning ... I knew the bus trip to return to Kampala from Kabale would be epic and void of bathrooms. Hence the dainty bites and sips carefully spaced apart, trying to keep my bladder empty. But it turned out to be even more epic than imagined, 14 hours to get from point A to point B, which is not super far in terms of road kilometers. But first you wait for enough people to buy tickets to fill up the bus before leaving, then stop after stop for exiting and entering passengers, then the palatial potholes to be navigated, the incessant speed humps in the road (as if the potholes were not sufficient speed reduction), the refueling stops for inexplicably long periods, the occasional stop beside roadside vendors to come up to the windows to sell you food which you have nowhere to pee out.
Actually the trip from Kabale was particularly interesting this way, because by the time we reached Kampala, most people had done their grocery shopping through the bus window. There were different regions that sold mostly one kind of food. So one time the whole town was buried in heaps of onions, everyone around me bought some bundles. Then another had bunches of bananas, another had cabbages, one potatoes, another sold exclusively milk in small jerricans. And the bus patrons, still imprisoned in their seats, pass money out the window as vendors pass the goods inside, arriving in Kampala with a virtual grocery cart of food beyond what they had bought to eat on the bus.
The bus driver in whose hands my life was entrusted from Kabale to Kampala happened to be a homicidal maniac (apparently no background check required for this job). But he was having a bad day, for despite his best efforts, to my knowledge no pedestrians were killed. When pulling over to the side of the road to let vendors sell us food or to let passengers off, he delighted in driving directly toward the crowd gathered on the road. They would watch the bus wide-eyed for a moment, like the proverbial deer in the headlights, then at the last second get their wits about them to literally sprint away, fleeing for their lives in all directions. One time we passed an overturned bus on the roadside, the passengers appeared to have gotten out somehow, despite the bus being on its side. They were obviously miserable and awaiting help. Two minutes later our bus came to a screeching halt as it came within a centimeter of rear-ending the bus our driver was tailgating. (I was sitting in the front row, privy to all his techniques.)
The thing I loved best about this ride is that the passengers broke out into spontaneous song. Clearly they were songs everyone knew, so one person just started singing loudly and scores of other passengers joined in. Like when John Candy starts singing "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones!" on the bus in Planes Trains and Automobiles.
On this trip from Kabale I was accompanied by my friend with whom I’d been staying at Lake Bunyoni (with no electricity and no running water, hence the un-showered state). When we arrived in Kampala, he had retained the services of a private driver. So we exited the bus at a random spot along the street before reaching the city center where one can get mired in 2-hour long traffic jams. We stood there with my luggage and his tree branch laden with bananas and large canvas sack of potatoes ... watching the cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians pass by for about an hour before the driver arrived. But then it was posh driving back to Entebbe and to my home at the UWEC. As I closed the flat door behind me, luggage thrown inside, I starting singing, “I’m so happy to be home. I’m so happy to be home.” Then flipped on the water heater, stripped off my clothes, which left me still heavily clad in a layer of caked-on dirt and salty sweat. Probably nobody would have even noticed I was naked, encased in my dirt dress. haha. Anyway, blessed shower, water and soap, reveling in the luxury. Then fell into bed and slept without waking or even turning over until morning -- always the sign of an adventure well had, despite temporary discomforts.
It may be a little while before the next round of posts. If you know others who might be interested in these adventures, please share the website! Here are some more random scenes shot through the window of the moving bus ... small, if crooked, captures of life along the road.
You can read my handy list of tips for surviving Uganda's public transportation.