Easing into Africa

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I’ve had a very gentle start to my time in Africa, and it’s been much appreciated. Mind you, I could have done without the overnight flight from Tel Aviv and the extra-long layover in Addis Ababa, which was scheduled at four hours but ended up including a bonus two hours of waiting in the washroom-less departure lounge. (And I use the word “lounge” exceedingly loosely.) When I arrived at Entebbe airport, I breezed through passport control and customs and found my way out to the throng of taxi drivers to find my man – Achilles – who had been arranged ahead of time with my friend Rob. (Not Rob H. of the prolific blog comments. Rob R. of the interesting overseas career.)

The drive from Entebbe to Kampala was great – Achilles was like a local tour guide, though I suspect he must have thought I was slightly bonkers, because of conversational exchanges like this:

  • Me: Is that a banana tree?
  • Achilles: Yes
  • Me: Seriously? A BANANA TREE? Wow. What’s that?
  • Achilles: A Jackfruit tree.
  • Me: Jackfruit? What’s that? etc…

Besides crazy fruit trees, the road from Entebbe to Kampala was also lined with tiny shops – those ones with corrugated tin roofs that look like the slightest puff of wind will knock them over. They offered all kinds of services, but almost every other place was painted bright yellow and had a sign outside offering pay-as-you-go cell phone time. I’ve just got a new SIM card for my phone for Africa, so this was a welcome sight. (Apologies to anymore with my UK cell phone number, but one quick voice call I made in Jerusalem cost about £7.00, and every text message I send is 49p, so get over it.) It seems that in Africa you can’t stumble 10’ down the road without finding someone hawking cell phone time. There are even guys wandering amidst the traffic at intersections selling it. (These guys also sell lottery tickets, sunglasses, cell phone car charges, bagged chunks of sugar cane…. you get the idea. It’s like a drive-through that comes to you.) And the shops are painted other bright colours too, and there were people everywhere, and motorcycles, and red dirt roads, and freakin’ mango trees. It was great – exactly what I’d expected from Africa, and a pick-up after the same-ness of all the European-like places I’ve been so far. I am really not in Kansas anymore.

This is actually quite a sturdy and shiny looking shop, as compared to those on the road from Entebbe, which I was not able to photograph from the moving car.

Achilles dropped me at the home of my old friend Rob who lives with his wife and new baby in a fantastic, sprawling bungalow with a lovely big garden behind very high stone walls and a gate tended by a full time guard. While life in Uganda is very very very much calmer and more civilized than in the days of Idi Amin and his ilk, it’s still normal for people to employ guard services 24 hours a day. (And when I say “people” I guess I really mean relatively affluent white ex-pats.) Rob assures me it’s more a case that you don’t want to be the only ones in the neighbourhood without guards, because this could make you a target. And it’s nice to have the guards there to open and close the gates when you come and go, but I’m sure it would be nicest not to need them at all.

The ‘hood

Spending time with Rob and Gülden and baby Ozan is like spending time with most new parents. Understandably, the baby takes a lot of time and effort, and I’m happy to slide along with whatever the current need or activity is. On Saturday, that was a kid’s Christmas party at the home of some of Rob’s friends who live nearby. It was a really nice get-together, and properly Christmassy with mulled wine and mince tarts and a visit from Santa, who brought presents for the kids. But it was also about 23 degrees and the sun was out and the garden was blooming and I was wearing sandals.

The strangest backdrop to a visit from Santa that I’ve ever seen.

(And I also met a Kiwi guy at the party who runs a whitewater rafting and bungee-jumping company in Jinja, where the Nile flow out of Lake Victoria. So stay tuned for my adventures shooting the rapids at the source of the Nile!)

Rob and I had a few runs along the streets of the neighbourhood, called Kololo. It was a tough go for me – it had been about 26 days since my last run, on the Greek island of Poros, and the altitude of Kampala is enough to make a difference. The first day was rough, but the second day was much much better, so either I’ve acclimatized a bit already, or I haven't lost as much fitness as it feels like. Either way, I was grateful to have the chance to run again, and to stain my shoes with the red dirt of Uganda.

It’s really, really red! So red that when it rains, the puddles are orange. See? (Another in the series of photos of Pam’s toes.)

Oh, and Rob and I went to a very cool hardware store, on a mission to get the bits and pieces need to hang a baby swing for Ozan out on the spacious and airy porch of Rob’s house. It was a great place. It was the kind of cavernous, old-fashioned hardware store you don’t see in North America often anymore, now that every eye bolt and finishing nail must have a SKU and a barcode. This place had everything from plumbing cut-off valves to 500 watt generators to bins of bolts to coils of rusty inch-thick wire rope on enormous spools that looked approximately the right size for repairing suspension bridges. Happily, they also had masonry bits and expanding concrete anchors suitable for hanging baby swings.

The hardware store.

I’ve also had some traditional Ugandan food – most of it at a lunch buffet where they were offering six, count 'em SIX different starchy options: rice, potatoes, chapati, casava, matoke and millet. The most local of these are matoke, which is cooked plantain mash, casava (the boiled root) and millet, which came in glutinous brown chunks. Of these my favourite was the matoke, though they are all quite plain. The casava was boring in the extreme – totally flavourless, dry and hard to get down. The millet was quite gluey. I also had a chance to sample posho at another dinner - it's a mixture of maize flour and water and tastes just like... flour and water. Sort of more like wallpaper paste than food. I think I shall declare odd starches Steve's Weird Food for Uganda, especially since I tried four different ones.

Matoke (and the local speciality Stoney - a nice ginger ale kind of thing)

And of course, I hashed in Kampala – the 14th hash I’ve run with (not including the three I merely drank with) and the 3rd continent I’ve hashed on. In fact, the Kampala Hash House Harriers claim to be the biggest hash in the world and I can believe it. I suspect there were about a hundred attendees at the run I was at, and it was simply a regular Monday night run – not a special event. I even arrived at the hash on a boda-boda – a local motorcycle taxi. They’re everywhere, and pretty much insane, but luckily the traffic is bad enough that they don’t get up much speed. My boda to the hash cost 2,500 UGX, or about $1.40. My hosts suggested I try using a particular boda driver that they’ve used before, one who can be convinced to slow down and trusted (somewhat) to get you where you’re going in one piece. Ironically when I asked for his number I was told he’s temporarily out of business because his motorcycle is in the shop. He was in an accident…

Bodas (It’s a bit scary how far one’s standards of personal hygeine and personal safety slip on a trip like this. Then again, when you see women in pencil skirts riding sidesaddle on a boda while simultaneously texting it’s hard to get too worked up about it. Then again again, the LP says that one newspaper reports there are five deaths daily on boda-bodas.)

The hash run itself felt quite long, though it may have been the 3 H’s that killed me: Hills, Humidity and Heat (also, I’d like to continue using altitude as an excuse indefinitely, please.) In any case I was completely drained and drenched by the end, but had a good evening overall, and met several friendly hashers and made a contact that I think will help me get in touch with the Nairobi hash.

Off-road hashing in Kampala, though much of the trail was on busy streets.

However, I don’t want you to get the idea that life in Kampala is all Christmas parties and ginger ale. I’ve had to run a few errands and take care of some RTW travel kind of things in Kampala, and now that I’ve ventured beyond the walled compound and dipped my toe into something more like the real Africa, I can see that it’s a challenging place. Getting an African SIM card for my cell phone was actually reasonably easy, and the rates aren’t bad either – 550 UGX per minute for international calling (31 cents) and 220 UGX for international text messages (13 cents), and I can even send and receive email for pretty reasonable rates. But tracking my Christmas Fedex package from home was another matter. First I had to cough up an outrageous 180,400 UGX ($102.00!!) to cover some kind customs or duty or taxes. (That’s about 2/3 of the value of the shipment…) And the fee could not be paid by credit card, or to the courier upon delivery. It had to be paid in advance before the package would be released from Entebbe. And it had to be paid in cash, in person, at an tiny office on an unmarked street in Kampala’s industrial district. Luckily, my hosts are also providing occasional chauffeur services.

Then I expected to take delivery on Monday (the usurious fees were paid on Friday). On Monday no package arrived, and 4 phonecalls later I found out that a fire at Entebbe airport delayed the release of many packages, so I was told to expect delivery on Tuesday. On Tuesday I was told that the package was released from the airport to the office in Entebbe, but not soon enough to go with the courier to Kampala. I'm now told to expect it at 8:30am on Wednesday*. Barring another fire, I suppose. Or the discovery of a new and as-yet-unpaid fee that will require me to travel by boda-boda to a tiny shack in the outskirts of Jinja and hand over an inch-thick wad of bills through a grate in darkened window.

Similarly, booking a flight from Entebbe to Nairobi has been a bizarrely difficult process that involved three attempts to purchase online, and two phonecalls and a trip to the physical offices of Kenya Airways because they, like Fedex, will not accept credit card payments over the phone. It seems that accomplishing anything takes many more steps and much more effort than it does in the First World. However, allowances must be made. This is a part of the world that still has big issues to deal with, though they are making progress. Just recently the Ugandan government passed a law banning female genital mutilation, but is also considering a distressingly popular move to make homosexuality punishable by the death penalty. About 75% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $2.00 USD per day, and Uganda has the highest birth rate in the world, with an average of 6.8 children born to each woman. Clearly, they still have a long way to go.

For now though, I am enjoying my time in Uganda, sleeping under a mosquito net, wearing shorts and sandals, and trying to bob above the sea of annoyance and petty bureaucracy that comes with Africa. I’ve enjoyed my time visiting with Rob and Gülden and Ozan, and I’m looking forward to hitting the waves on Thursday and getting out on safari next week.

Master of the House, Ozan (how cute is he?). And to Rob and Gülden – Thanks for the warm welcome, bed & board, laundry, internet, chauffeur and tour guide services!

WARNING: Internet access will become increasingly spotty from now on. I’m investigating using my cell phone and posting via email, or possibly getting a cellular modem, but be prepared for long blackouts and minimal photos. That’s just Africa.

* Newsflash - after much badgering I finally received my package around 7pm on Tuesday night. It looked like it had been run over by a truck, but contained new shirts! And new socks! And best of all... NEW UNDERWEAR!!!


Rick M. said...

Winnipeg Temperature.Tues.,Dec.15/09
3:00pm C.S.T.
-22 C / W.C. -32 C
Thought you'ld like to know.

Happy Trails.
Rick M.

Karen said...

Africa - cool!
Package arrived - cool!

Most important - painted toenails still! I'm impressed. ;-)

brian said...

Just discovered your blog. Great photos and commentary!

Lisa said...

I echo Karen's sentiments..NICE toenails!

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