London/Kampala: An Auspicious Arrival

Jan 31st, 2008: To the moon, Alice!

Ye Olde Porridge Stand - Only in England
Ye Olde Porridge Stand - Only in England
(click to enlarge all photos)

On the road again, and this time we're going for the gusto: We are heading to Eastern Africa, which has been at the top of my neverending and extensive travel list for many years now. Our trip is taking us to Uganda and Tanzania with stopovers in London & Dubai (not technically in Africa, but I was always bad at geometry).

It has all the ingredients of a great trip:

  • 1 pint of excitement
  • 500g of uncertainty
  • One giant helping of fiscal irresponsibility

It should be a dandy!

We arrive at Heathrow at 11:45am (or 3:45am our time) and take a 15 minute train ride that costs us $71. Ahh, London. We then make our way to our friend Taya's place and despite our best intentions about what we'll do on our first day in London, we're too jetlagged to do much. Other than to go about 32 feet to the nearest pub, where we stay for the remainder of the night. All our friends show up. Pints are poured. A human pyramid occurs. Shenanigans ensue.

We get up 14 hours later and head to the Tate Modern art gallery. In the past few years, I have picked up a much greater appreciation for modern and abstract art. As we peruse the gallery, I realize that I have some rules to my art appreciation:

  1. If the artist's description includes the term "politico-dialectic dogma", I will hate it.
  2. If the objet d'art features a dead bird shot with a crossbow, I will love it.

My rules are arbitrary, yet concrete.

Sunday we all go out for an afternoon roast beef and it turns out that it is "Yorkshire Pudding Day". Talk about rolling out the red carpet for us while we're in town!

Feb 4th, 2008: Holy Mother of Pearl of Africa!

Typical Traffic in Kampala
Typical Traffic in Kampala

Uganda! And what a welcome to the country! After 17 hours of travel from London, we arrive in 29 degree heat and high humidity, exactly what we were hoping for - a hot escape from Canadian winter.

For the first time ever, we are greeted at the airport by a driver holding up a piece of paper that bears my name, more or less. "Welcome, Mr. Noah Willock", it says. It might as well say, "Hello, Mr. Fancy Pants" for how puffed up my chest is. The tour company for whom I made a website has sent this car to pick us up and welcome us. After a long journey, it was just what I was hoping for. Unfortunately, this sense of relaxation wouldn't last.

Our driver takes us on the 40-minute drive from Entebbe airport into Kampala, passing by verdant countryside and eclectic lean-to stores, including "Jay's Video Production and Vegetable Market". He also stops to get gas - it is supposedly a frequent occurrence for taxi drivers here to run out of gas, as they fill it with only a few litres at a time. These minimal fill-ups are so that if/when their cabs get stolen, the thief won't get far. I am not certain this makes me feel better.

We are a little too exhausted to be properly overwhelmed, but we are excited nonetheless. So excited that we don't even notice the citywide traffic jam until we are deep into it. After a period of 1/2 hour with literally no movement, our driver pulls a u-turn.

"I have a shortcut," he tells us.

And so it is. A shortcut to an even worse part of the traffic jam. A half-hour of driving takes us to a remote corner that is actually trying to connect with where we'd just been. Another 45 minutes with virtually no forward motion is followed by another u-turn and another shortcut. This one takes us through a shantytown, driving on what could only be called "roads" with the same kind of euphemistic prowess that a homely person is called "interesting looking".

"I've never been here before!" our driver smiles at us.

We are now a piece of shrapnel in the furthest corner of this expanding traffic explosion. After another hour, we progress 75 feet. We are now totally and completely stuck. We're approximately 8 km away from our hostel - too far to walk with our backpacks, not that we had any map or directions how to get there. Our cab would arrive there in three hours as a very conservative estimate, and six to eight hours seemed more plausible. It's still 29 and very humid, and after our long journey, we feel like death.

Guys on scooters (known as boda-bodas) are the only people making any progress and though hitching a ride would be possible, it would mean leaving our backpacks in the car; another non-starter.

Finally, our cab driver, himself completely flummoxed, finds two boda-boda drivers who will take us while also carrying our 60lb backpacks on their laps. It is the worst idea ever that doesn't involve the words, "staying in the cab for six more hours", and so we jump at it. The boda-boda drivers pull a u-turn.

"We have a shortcut," they tell us. I sigh.

Helmetless and clutching on with whatever strength we had left, the drivers take us on sidewalks, over potholes, through steep dirt alleyways, beside chicken stands, over railroad tracks, down the wrong lane in rush hour, and, almost more scarily, down the right lane in rush hour. This, while all driving in Kampala is done mere inches away from other vehicles, but never with a reduction in speed.

At one point Steph and her driver disappear completely, making me nervous. No need to worry - her driver had just run out of gas and handed her off to some different guy on a scooter, one who certainly has no idea what our final destination is.

Bobbing and weaving through the endless attack of traffic, we speed past a car spraying a variety of motor fuels 20 feet into the air. My driver takes the rather unconventional route of going directly beneath it, covering my face in a spray of hot radiator water and antifreeze. He then jams ourselves in behind a massive semi that is making good progress and rolling gently forward - it's the only vehicle on the road going straight. A man then sprints up beside it and scurries into the cab and behind the wheel; it had been moving along driverless for the previous 100 feet. I was beginning to wish our boda-boda drivers had intended to mug us, as it certainly would have been safer than continuing in traffic.

Forty-five minutes of nervous sweats (Steph's) and blood-curdling screams (mine) later, we arrive at our hostel. The ride was terrifying and absolutely fantastic. The hostel clerk greets us with a sly smile that indicates that this was clearly just an average day in Kampala. Hopefully these safaris are within walking distance...

Sights of Kampala Photos

Feb 6th, 2008: The Rungs of Malarone

A Hardware Store, Of Course
A Hardware Store, Of Course

Today we play The Waiting Game. Our safari has been delayed by a day and our hostel ran out of rooms, so the bulk of the day has been spent finding a place to stay. Our attempts to get things moving has for the second consecutive day been hampered by an odd & restless sleep caused by our anti-malarial medication, Malarone. It has been inducing weird dreams and night sweats, but it's still a big improvement on Lariam, the anti-malarial I took a decade ago that contained the not-exactly-reassuring warning: "You may not be able to tell the difference between the side effects of the drug and the disease itself." As long as I don't dream about having malaria, I suppose this is a worthwhile endeavour.

Some observations made after a couple of hours wandering around Kampala:

1. You Can't Judge A Store By Its Cover

Advertising is absolutely everywhere here. Even stores are often sponsored, and by other businesses. The facades on most small shops feature a giant painted ad for a different company and no signage for the store itself, making it tricky to figure out what kind of shop you are looking at. A building that looks like a paint store will sell groceries; one with a storewide ad for Cadbury's will hock electronics; and an ad spanning 35-feet for "The Church of Jesus our Saviour" is on the front of, naturally, a hardware store.

2. It's Wild in the Streets

Despite the ongoing insanity, I believe we're starting to get used to the traffic. A visitors' map we were given seems to indicate the four streetlights in central Kampala. If correct, that means four streetlights in the downtown of a city of 1.2 million people and with a population of millions more in the metropolitan area. And despite that, we have yet to see an accident.

I have figured out that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there is in fact traffic law in Kampala. What that law is, is Newton's First: An object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest.

Vehicles, whether they are bicycles, boda-bodas, cars or oil rigs, move until they absolutely can move no more - whether it is through traffic, around traffic, on the sidewalk, in the wrong lane, or on the sidewalk of the wrong lane, you just make sure you keep moving. Should a 2-inch gap appear, a stationary vehicle will jump into it, leaving you trapped at a dead standstill until you (or the car beside you) can find a 2-inch gap of your own to jump into. This can take weeks.

3. Silverbacks, not Silver Foxes

There are no old people here. At all. In three days of wandering around we have seen a grand total of two people with grey hair. It's unsettling.

4. It's No Wonder There's Such A Big Population in Africa

It's because of all the storks! Enormous storks float around the city in great numbers, the Ugandan equivalent of pigeons, just a 20 times the size. Around four feet tall and with a wing span nearing 10 feet, these massive beasts lord of the city, casting imposing silhouettes as they careen from rooftop to rooftop. The locals appreciate them because they eat lots of garbage, which I suppose is useful in such a dirty city (signs around town boast the recent release of the first 500 public garbage bins ever in Kampala).

5. They Have Cool Names

While the names of most people we have encountered have been common Christian or Muslim names (Stephen, Rashid), others are a little more unusual. At one craft stand, a woman was selling hand-carved keychains with names inscribed in them, much as we might have a bead keychain at home with a choice of names like: Sally, Tim or Jerry.

At this craft stand, however, there were only three names to choose from: Ilah, Retchel and Dorcus. One guess which one my brother is getting as a souvenier...