Usually, I LOVE road trips here in Uganda. I mean, this is a strange thing to say, because road trips usually include stuffing yourself into a vehicle which does not provide enough leg room or sitting room. This is not usually the ideal of fun, and if I don’t get a window seat, then it’s definitely something to just grin and bear. But when I get a window seat… ahhh life is good.
Uganda is so (relatively) highly populated, and most people have very small houses. Especially people who are living along the roadsides. They usually have houses that are a part of a concrete “apartment complex.” These “houses” consist of usually two rooms, one front room for entertaining and one back room for sleeping… for everyone in the family. And families are not considered a legitimately real family unless there are at least 4 kids, and that’s a really small family. So, needless to say, the houses themselves are incredibly cramped quarters. But because of this, basically all of life happens outside. Which means that when I get to observe as we fly down the roads, I get to see a million snapshots of life. And life in Uganda is beautiful.
As we drive by, I see babies learning to walk, then others waddling around their compounds. I see small girls carrying their baby brother or sister on their backs. I see women packing their goods into bags to be shipped, others selling their fruits and vegetables, sitting out on tarps by the roadside. I see men sitting in circles playing cards, or waiting on their boda bodas for customers. I see people pushing their bicycles heavily laden with bunches of bananas, Gerry cans of water, cans of milk, or bags of cement. I get to see people having conversations, bartering, holding hands, welcoming each other, smiling, laughing, crying, sitting, hugging, dancing. It’s really like seeing life as I fly by down the road. And it’s amazing.
So then last weekend I was on my way back from an ordination in Musoma, Tanzania. It was a beautiful ordination full of dancing and singing and ululations and fun. But the real adventure was our journey back to Jinja. Ok, first of all, I was told before going that the journey was supposed to be about 8 hours on the road, basically hugging the edge of Lake Victoria around. This was if we had gone by private car. Instead, we chose to go by public shared taxi, a mode of transport called “mutatu” in Swahili. I knew that the journey would take more than 8 hours, since the trip there took a little over 12 hours. But luckily we were traveling in a group that fluxuated between 12 and 14 people, so it didn’t take long to fill up a shared taxi which officially is considered filled at 14 (but people often stuff them more full). So… we prepared for a long journey, my iPod fully charged, wearing my most comfortable t-shirt and a pair of awesome travel trousers (“pants” means underwear in Uganda… so I’ve refrained my use of that word after the awkward silence and laughter that followed the first two or three times I said it), a full bottle of water, and some roasted corn kernels as a snack for the road. We set off at the lovely hour of 4:30 in the morning. There’s something wrong with being awake before the sun rises, but there you go, what choice did we have? And this, my friends, is where the adventure began…
4:30AM: Leave our retreat house in the car of our great friend who was willing to wake up at that ridiculous hour to drive us to where we would pick the first mutatu.
5:03AM: The mutatu finally hits the road, all of us piled inside, as we all drift off to sleep quickly, only to occasionally be reawoken by the biggest potholes.
5:52AM: The mutatu is stopped on the road by a police check telling them that their tire pressure is low, and they should look at it. However, this is all unbeknownst to us because we all speak only English and/or Luganda, not Kiswahili.
6:17AM: Anna is rudely awoken by a small pop and a hiss coming from below her. The mutatu pulls over.
6:19AM: Analysis is made, and indeed, the tire popped. Now, the rest of us become aware of what the taxi was previously pulled over for.
6:20AM: We now realize that the taxi not only does not have an extra tire, but it also does not have a jack. This leads to:
6:21-7:12: Standing/Talking/Sitting/Dancing/Singing by the side of the road, watching the clouds lighten over the mountains which have the most strange rock formations, where many boulders perch precariously upon each other, and one slight breeze would seem able to topple them. This then leads to discussion about how the rocks may have gotten there in the first place. Analysis: God. Cool. While this is happening, the taxi driver, and the conductor (the man who sits with his head out the window trying to get more passengers, collects the money, and tells the driver when to stop) are trying their darndest to make a jack out of rocks. It’s quite the endeavor, and I’m appreciating seeing their mechanical skills at work. By this point though, I’m relatively certain there’s no way that these rocks are ever going to be able to really lift the car. But at 7:12…
7:12 AM: We spot another taxi coming down the road (up to this point, our only fellow road goers were bicycle riders and one other rude taxi who did not want to stop for us) and all frantically wave our arms trying to get the man to stop. And indeed he does, gives us his jack, then drives away (I wonder… did he ever get his jack back? How in the world, if he did?)
7:24 AM: We set off again, after the two men have managed to raise the car, and have somehow shifted the tires around so that as long as we go slowly, we will be able to make it. Don’t ask me how this worked, I’m definitely no physicist.
9:35 AM: We reach the border of Kenya, and get through the border crossing, with our fellow American travel companion having slight issues with his passport. Here, we meet with the other Holy Cross members who left hours after us. Oh joy.
10:27AM: We find another taxi on the Kenyan side of the border, telling us it will take us all the way to the Tanzanian border. We are very excited about this and pile into the slightly smaller vehicle. But… the driver decides it’s important to have other people board the vehicle, at which point we inquire as to where they will sit. Turns out they will just put a board between the single and the double seat, and the person will sit on the wooden board. Alright, just glad it’s not me.
11:29 AM: The driver starts driving like a madman, whipping around corners, and pulls frantically into a taxi park, then yells at us to get out without reason and get into the other taxi behind us. We comply. But this taxi is the smallest I’ve ever been in… I now can have a greater compassion for tall people, since my knees were crushed up against the seat in front of me. I’ve never had that problem before!
1:35 PM: We arrive in Kisumu, which we did not think we were going to stop in, but alas, here we are, because even though both this and the taxi before it told us it was going to take us all the way to the border apparently decided it didn’t want to. We then spend over half an hour waiting as all the different taxi conductors in the park are fighting over us.
2:12 PM: We board another taxi, which says it will take us to the border. This is great, but by now we’re not entirely trusting them. But we pile in anyways. However, I went into the furthest behind seat… which means I’m behind the wheels, which means that every bump in the road is approximately 389420 times worse. And this road is BAD. Plus, the ceiling above us is not padded at all; instead it’s just a metal bar. So, I spend the next hour and fifteen minutes crouched over so as not to get a concussion as we are flying around the back of the taxi.
3:45 PM: Our taxi breaks down, so we coast into a parking lot, where they find another taxi to shove us all into. However, by now, people are a bit cranky, so when they try to add extra people into the car, our travelers start fighting. Now, all of a sudden, there are people yelling in Luganda, Lusoga, and Swahili. And no one is understanding each other, but people are just mad.
4:17PM: Our group leader finally sticks his head in the taxi and just says, hey guys, we’re not going to win, let’s just allow it and go so we can continue. At which point the woman sitting behind us says, “Ah, ok! Now that someone has said something I understand.” The entire car breaks out into pure, whole-bellied laughter. People are wiping their eyes from tears of mirth as all the tension breaks. Amazing. The way in which people allow themselves to have their attitudes and perceptions and frustrations changed immediately is incredible and inspiring.
4:28 PM: After adding so many people that there are three people hanging out the door as the door stays open, I am again dozing. But alas, again I am rudely awoken by a harsh scraping noise of metal on pavement. After all sorts of movies, my first thought is that we’ve lost the motor. But no, it’s just the door. A five minute pit stop spent trying to figure out the best way to affix it back to the car (rope), we’re back driving again.
5:15 PM: We arrive in Busia, and make the border crossing from Kenya to Uganda. I get such a great kick out of walking across borders. It’s fun. But now on the other side, our guide is telling us that he knows Busia really well, so we’ll just walk to the taxi park. But… he apparently has a sense of direction similar to mine, which means that we get a nice tour of the Ugandan side of Busia. We decide the theme of this trip is, “I have nothing to do but laugh.”
6:10 PM: We finally find the taxi park and decide on a taxi as not only the conductors are fighting, but the sky is getting darker and darker. We are going on very little food and are all just a little cranky. We pull out of the Busia taxi park as the storm clouds are gathering behind us, about to let loose.
8:32 PM: We finally arrive back in Bugembe, safe and sound, but mostly laughing. Thank the good Lord.
What did I learn from all of this?
1. Don’t ever pay taxi drivers before they deliver you to where they promised.
2. Learn how to communicate in a common language.
3. I really really appreciate the personal space given when traveling by public transportation in the States.
4. Sometimes things go wrong. But hey, that’s life. You can either be upset about it… or you can find the humor in it and just laugh. And laugh. And Ugandans love to laugh. And I love to laugh. It was truly inspiring. Every time the tension was growing… someone would crack a joke and it never really broke. And all that on a trip like this where we had maybe a cob of corn each and had no sleep. Throughout the whole thing, no one was quarrelling with each other, instead there was this amazing sense of community, which only grew throughout the entirety of the trip. It was a truly beautiful experience, although I don’t know that I’d care to repeat it again anytime soon.
Sending love from Uganda.