Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Retrospective post #2

This is a second retrospective entry from Gulu. I have at least one more to publish, possibly two.


Well, Gulu is over. I know I haven’t written much about it – the Institute didn’t really give me time. Also, I think it was one of those experiences that I couldn’t write and feel at the same time. There was just too much going on.

I realized how much I had changed this morning when I got on the bus and leaned back to take a nap. Leaning back aimed my eyes right at the ceiling of the bus, where the first thing I saw was grasshoppers crawling out of the bus lights and around the storage compartments. For a second, I felt my body start to tense up, and then I just decided, nah, isn’t worth the effort and went to sleep. I didn’t wake up again until Karuma Falls. Figured if the bugs really bothered me that much, I’d just eat them.

You know, it really has been a journey for me. Yesterday I didn’t even know for sure how I’d get back to Kampala. I was completely reliant on Maisha’s Number One Rule of Travel: As long as you have your passport and a working credit card, you’ll be okay. I’d heard rumors that you could take the Post Bus back to Kampala, that it was new and comfortable and driven safely. The best part is it only costs 20.000/= as opposed to 450.000/=, like I’ve mentioned before. The only problem I could see was transport from the hotel to the bus at 5:30 in the morning. Gulu wakes up at 6 a.m. sharp. Not before, not after. Even the roosters wait until the church bells ring to start crowing. (Okay, maybe one deviant little clucker will let out an early cock-a-doodle-doo, but it’s pretty rare.) So how on earth was I going to get someone from town to bring a car around and pick me up with the delinquent roosters?

I went to the bus park the night before and made an appointment. Of course, I made the one cultural faux pas: I asked how much it would cost. Have I learned nothing in my travels here?

“Fifteen thousand!” one eager driver shouted. Great. It costs fifteen thousand to get from downtown Kampala to Ntinda, and this wasn’t even half of the distance. I mock-scowled at the driver.

“Ten.” I insisted. This was probably still about five times the regular pay, because the guy beamed immediately. Oh well. I swallowed my pride and told myself I had really only spent about $8.

The guy came to pick me up in the pouring rain at 5:25 a.m. He was actually early. I, silly munu, had turned off my alarm clock and gone right back to sleep, figuring he would be at least 30 minutes late and I had time. Uh, oops. It was the horn that woke me up. Forget the fact that the entire ritzy hotel population was sound asleep, this driver just put his hand in the middle of that steering wheel and leaned. I hadn’t even finished packing. I slumped out of bed, threw my things into the bag, deliberately abandoned what I felt I couldn’t carry (i.e., two pairs of shoes that have literally skinned my feet since I got here, medical supplies that I won’t need in Kampala, and Jacqueline’s tub of groundnut paste), and oozed down the stairs to the car. It was raining like mad, one of those blinding Ugandan lightning storms again.

The driver took me to the post office. No one was there. I got out of the car and asked the post office guard when the bus was leaving, and he said it only traveled Mondays through Fridays. My driver snickered. The little cretin! I’m pretty sure he knew this would happen.

“Well,” he had the audacity to say, “you can always hire me.” I thought about all that money going down the fuel pump.

“Do you know the way to Kampala?” I asked. My driver didn’t answer. He just looked sideways and grinned. No way was I going to hire him.

“How about you just take me to the new bus park, just to see if any nice buses are going? I’ll hire you if no one is there.”

He took me around, and sure enough there was a bus with its engine running. Looked pretty full from the outside, too. “But you have resolved to move with me!” my driver said. Yeah, sort of. I had resolved to move with him if my luck gave out.

I smiled a tight little smile and said, “Let me just check with these guys; if I go with them I will pay you for the trip back to the bus park, too.” You could see the little shilling signs lining up in this guy’s eyes. Munu was going to give him even more cash than before, and he wouldn’t have to waste the day trying to find Kampala. Great.

I stepped up to the bus. Three young Ugandan men were lounging on the stairs, trying to look tough and American. It’s cute when Ugandan men do this, because they usually miss the cultural nuances completely. Exempla gratia, one of these fellows was wearing an oversized Winnie-the-Pooh t-shirt. I burst out laughing.

“What?” my driver said behind me.

“That guy is wearing a Pooh Bear shirt!” I laughed, trying to keep the giggles to a minimum. Even if Ugandan men might not look tough doesn’t mean they weren’t child soldiers five years ago. I’m not sure if the driver understood or not, but he heard the word “poo” and started chuckling uncertainly. I just let that one go. Way too early in the morning to offer cultural explanations.

I climbed up to the bus and asked the guys, “Hey, what time is this bus leaving?”

The boys didn’t miss a beat. “Why don’t you climb on board and find out?”

I shrugged. I looked into the bus. There were a lot of people wearing professional clothes, and some kids. It looked safe enough. “Okay, I’m going with them,” I told the driver. He looked at me funny.

“You call me when you get to Kampala,” he said. Great, that raises my confidence tons.

The ride itself wasn’t bad, though. The only bit that got a little scary was where road repairs forced us to detour across a really pitted, narrow road. The bus kept sloping off the side and driving tilted for 100 meters or so before righting itself again. I told myself two things:

1. Mom would kill me if she saw me doing this. I’d better never take this bus again.

2. I’m a fat American. If I lean opposite the way the bus is tilting, I can keep the cabin balanced all by myself.

Number two was a lie, but it made me feel better, and we got through safely after all.

Actually, the ride was pretty exciting. I sat by two silent, strong-looking men and one small talkative fellow who had the most adorable little girl cradled in his arms. He played with her the way I remember Dad playing with me when I was a kid, and it brought all sorts of memories rushing back. Turns out this guy, Peter, works with Invisible Children, and I did a little interview with him along the way. He didn’t really say anything I didn’t know about child soldiers trying to get through school, but it was engrossing all the same.

The two strong silent types to my right sounded like they were offended to be crammed onto a bench with a large tourist. They spoke in rapid Luganda and sounded a little annoyed. That changed, though, when we hit our first pit stop. I wanted goat muchomo so badly (hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, or breakfast that morning), but I only had 10.000/= notes. Muchomo costs 500/= … it’s meat on a stick, a salty roadside bbq kebab that I have learned to love over my road trips. One stick is enough to satiate hunger, two is enough to make your tummy bulge. I got ten. No way would somebody on the side of the road have change for a 10.000/= note; they just don’t carry that much or make so much in sales. Buying ten sticks meant they only had to find a 5.000/= note, possibly an easier feat. But there was no way I could eat that much muchomo – it would probably make me sick. So I gave two to Strong Silent #1, two to Strong Silent #2, and four to Peter and his daughter. It made the Quiet Ones explosively happy.

“Oh, where are you from?” they asked me. “You act like an African!” And they bought extra cassava and water and shared it all around. Peter got extra plantains, so we had a little feast in our bus row. It was kind of nice.

Turns out the two guys on my right are from Kampala, but doing construction work in Juba. They are very disenchanted with Sudan.

“How is Juba?” I asked them.

“Ah, it is a little bit behind,” #1 said.

“Nobody wants to work!” #2 exclaimed. “You see guys our age, and they just want to exchange money.”

“You see people sleeping under the trees.”

“No villages?” I asked. “Used to be, people built huts.”

“No,” the answered, “not anymore.”

I wonder exactly what is happening over there. Are the people really in such bad shape? Has the war exhausted people? Or maybe there are a nomadic group of people living in the Juba region? I don’t know. I will have to ask Dad. I really hope folks are better than that, though.

I mostly hung on for dear life, after that conversation, because road repairs had turned the tarmac into dust, and the bus wobbled the rest of the way to Kampala. I’ve been sneezing black goo since we got into town, and I really hope this doesn’t make me sick. At least on the bus, I was further away from the dirt than I would have been in a car.

Anyway, we made it back into town in one piece, and Vincent from Avarts took me to the cottage I’ve rented. Have I mentioned that I was bloody tired of managing my discomfort? I decided to splurge, this week. Happy birthday to me. I am paying a whole $50 per night for luxury lodgings in Kampala. I was supposed to have DSTV (I don’t) and an internet connection (it doesn’t work), but even without that, I’m in heaven. There’s a miniature market next door. The resort itself is fenced and guarded, secluded in a beautiful residential area on Naguru Hill. Wander outside, and there are goats all over the place wagging their little tails, and kids (the human kind) playing football. Inside, the landscaping is beautiful. Flowers drip off the trees, the neat stone walkways look like someone has polished them, and the lawns are well manicured. Every room is actually a separate porched cottage with a little glass table and African-print chairs in front. Inside, the floors are freshly tiled, the plaster is in perfect condition, the shower has an electronic temperature regulator, the kitchen is complete with a toaster oven and tiny refrigerator, the furniture is made out of wicker, the windows and doors are covered with glass that seals (read, no insect invasions unless they come out of the walls), and all of the cabinets and closets are new. The rooms are bright, the windows are enormous and let in a lot of sunlight; it’s all just perfect. Oh, and the bed! The bed is twin-sized, the comforter is a light blue embroidered with flowers, and the mosquito net is actually tented and framed with pink lace. I feel like a princess in here. I kept oohing over the place until the hotel owner actually got embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve lived for nine weeks with dirty concrete floors or gaping holes in the windows and doors to let the insects in. For a month now I’ve been living with cold showers in Gulu, and barely any room to turn over in my sleep, let alone a lacy mosquito canopy. Who cares about television and internet? I feel clean for the first time in months. I even took a shower and then cleaned the bathroom, because there was Tilex available and it made me feel good.

Anyway, Jane Bagonza, the hotelier, says she is going to name this place Maisha. She likes the name and the meaning behind it. I am super happy that such a nice place is going to be named after me. I hope I get to see it someday, after Jane is done. Right now it’s just four little cottages, but she is installing a restaurant upstairs, and she plans to add a mini-mart and a business center. I probably won’t be able to afford this place, by that point, but I sure would like to see it.

Anyway, I’m going to take a nap now. I can feel the muscles behind my eyeballs twisting. There’s something about traveling that is just exhausting. Or maybe it’s just relief to be back in Kampala. G’night!

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