Wow! Talk about a long trip. Twenty hours of flying to get to the East African nation of Uganda. The flights were pretty uneventful, but I gotta say that the Amsterdam airport is like going into a huge deli. They sell cheeses and meets and fruits and wines in this huge market area in the middle of the airport. Weird and cool all at the same time. There was even a vodka tasting going on. I spent almost an hour wandering around (found a Christmas ornament and tasted some vodka and cheese) instead of hanging out in the KLM lounge. I only had an hour and forty-five between flights so by the time I finished with the market and a little shopping, it was time to board my flight to Kampala.
The other thing I found weird about the Amsterdam airport was the dearth of bathrooms … and when I finally found one, I gotta say the toilet paper reminded me of the brown napkins they use at Starbucks. Yikes! They even had the stuff on the KLM plane. (Sorry if that is too graphic, but Charmin could do a great business in Amsterdam!)
Anyway, like I said the flights were pretty uneventful. However, the approach into the Entebbe airport was notable for the absolutely gorgeous view I had as we flew very low over Lake Victoria. The sky was pretty clear and the moon was shinning on the lake as we made the final approach to the airport. Gorgeous.
I was a little disappointed that I was arriving into the Entebbe airport late at night because I really wanted to catch a glimpse of the terminal and area that was the location for one of the greatest hostage rescues. If you don’t remember, or are just too young, an Air France jet carrying about 250 people was highjacked in 1976 by the Palestinian Liberation Army and some German terrorists and diverted to Entebbe. The flight had originated in Israel and had over 100 Jewish passengers on board. When the flight landed, the terrorists released non-Jewish passengers, but threatened to start killing Jewish passengers if their demands for the release of imprisoned terrorists were not met. After a week of planning 102 passengers were rescued although 3 passengers and a number of members of the rescue team were killed.
Anyway, my flight didn’t land until 9:45 p.m. and I couldn’t see a thing. I zipped through immigration, got my visa, cleared customs and made my way into the very dimly lit arrivals area. My driver was supposed to be meeting me with a sign, but when I went through the doors into the phalanx of taxi drivers and “greeters”, I did not see anyone. Crap. Entebbe is about 40 clicks from Kampala and I absolutely did not want to use a taxi driver who may or may not be able to find my hotel. A driver from the Sheraton asked me where I was headed and when I told him the Cassia Lodge he advised me that my driver was in the parking lot. Mmmmm. Not sure about that one. I wandered outside and took a look, but all I could see was a throng of people and darkness. The parking lot was lit by two very dim street lights and I could not see a thing. I turned back towards the arrivals area and the Sheraton dude spotted me and hollered that my driver was in the parking lot. OK pal.I heard you the first time, but I am not going wandering in a blackened parking lot. Just as I was about to put in a call to the hotel, my driver appeared at the arrivals door with my name on a sign. He apologized profusely and told me he was taking a nap in his car and had not realized my flight had landed. “Kalistasas” apologized again, grabbed my luggage and escorted me through the mud and gravel parking lot and the myriad of puddles to the van.
After paying the attendant we we took off down the road. It was very humid so Kalistasas had the windows open (no A/C) and the air smelled like smoke. As we drove (British side of the road), Kalistasas informed me that it might take a while for us to get to the hotel because it was a two lane highway to Kampala, and it was a Friday night and traffic is usually pretty bad. Good God! That was an understatement. The drive was not for the faint of heart, and I soon wished I had taken a valium. We drove bumper to bumper for the entire trip. However, the real problem wasn’t the amount of traffic, it was the darkness, the daring of the drivers and the number of pedestrians we encountered.
As we drove, I think I counted 4 street lights in 40 km. With no street lights (and very dimly lit villages), the only lights we saw were from the oncoming traffic and the tail lights of the cars in front … that is if the tail lights were working. (I quickly learned that tail lights are optional in Kamapla.) With little light it was difficult to make out pedestrians until you were literally about to hit them. People by the hundreds were walking on the sides of the road (seriously) and wandering back and forth across the road. There were also many, many people who were just standing on the side of the road waiting for these blue and white VW mini van taxis to stop and transport them somewhere.
I also quickly learned that drivers in Kampala have a death wish. Although the road was only two lanes, most of the drivers treated the road as a four lane highway. Cars and the mode of choice, motorcycles, weaved in and out of the traffic at will and passed one another pretty much when the mood struck. It didn’t matter if a vehicle was coming straight at you. More than once I was certain we were going to be hit head on. Kalistasas also did something rather strange. He would just randomly start his right hand blinker as if he were going to pass, but there was either nowhere to pass or no one to pass. At one point, we drove a couple kms with just the blinker going. I didn’t have the heart to ask him what the heck he was doing.
Despite the crazy traffic, the trip itself was rather interesting as we drove through a number of villages with shops and street stalls. Music blared from open air bars and strings of Christmas lights hung around the perimeter of the bars, which I guessed was cheaper than conventional lighting. I could hear laughter and lots of Swahili being spoken. Smoke was thick from the open air fires that were either being used to cook food or to burn trash. (No joke.) People were bartering, dancing, eating and generally enjoying their Friday night.
It was crazy and scary and entertaining all at the same time. We finally reach Kampala proper and headed up Buziga hill, again through more villages to the Cassia Lodge, which overlooks Lake Victoria and Kampala (gorgeous views). I was checked in pretty quickly and crash landed on my very hard bed only to lay there wide awake as the music and partying from the village below kept me from sleeping.
I got about five hours sleep before the roosters (again from the village below) started crowing. Good grief. I got up and opened the curtains just in time to see the sun starting to come up over the hill and shine on the lake. Beautiful way to start the day.
After breakfast, I grabbed a driver, “Se”, and headed into Kampala for a little walk through the markets. Se was a real sweetheart, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand half of what he said. Very thick accent. Anyway, it had rained in the night so the road were covered in the red clay mud that seems to permeate Africa so it made for a rather messy drive. In addition, the ride was more of the hellish traffic/pedestrian dance I experienced the night before until Se let me off at the Nakasero Market, and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I was immediately inundated with people wanting me to buy to buy fruit and spices. Hey “Momma” over here. Hey “Momma” what you need. Everyone was very friendly though, but rather dogged. One persistent fellow, Thomas, followed me for a while until I told him if he left me alone I would come back and buy a pineapple from him. I wandered around and admired the outfits of many of the women shopping and working at the market – full length dress and Erica Badu headscarf. They looked gorgeous.
This market was a very different than the middle east “souke” markets, and more along the lines of the open air markets I saw in Peru and India last year. Lots of open air stalls and people hunched over piles of fruit and vegetables on the ground. The area was pretty dirty with lots of red mud and puddles of water and was filled with people bartering and yelling and eating. I REALLY stood out though and was followed everywhere. I finally wandered back to where I started only to be immediately met by Thomas who scooped up a pineapple and with a machete knife began to cut up the pineapple for me. I have to admit it was really, really good. However, Thomas now latched on to me and told me he also had a spice stand and that I should buy spices from him. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was going to Zanzibar aka the Spice Islands and didn’t want to buy spices in Uganda.)
Anyway, I told Thomas I would have a look at his stand, which turned out to be a good idea because Thomas then insisted on giving me a complete tour of the market. He introduced me to ladies making soup, a guy selling baskets of dead ants (yes for eating and no I didn’t try them), a butcher selling cow hoofs and inerds (no refrigeration here), some gals selling fruit and his partner at the spice stand. We wandered around for about a half hour. I finally ended up buying some Ugandan coffee and tea and Thomas threw in a vanilla bean.
I then wandered down the street toward Owino Market. As I walked, I made a detour into a large corner store to get a bottle of water. I must say that it is the first time I have ever been searched going into a store and the first time I have ever seen an armed guard at the entrance. Geez what do they have in this place, bars of gold. But nope… just a grocery store.
With my bottle of water in hand, I walked a couple blocks to Owino Market, which had even more mud and puddles than the Nakasero Market. The first thing I encountered as I walked in was a pyramid high pile of yellow plastic containers (think gigantic corn oil containers at the grocery store). After thinking about it for a bit and remembering I had seen people lugging these containers in the villages we had passed that morning, I soon realized these were containers people used to haul water from local wells. (Other than the cities, most areas in Uganda do not have running water. The villages surrounding Kampala, including the villages sitting below my hotel do not have running water, which is remarkable since my hotel was only a 20 minute drive into downtown Kampala.) Anyway, as I made my way past the throngs already in the market, I watched people wandered around with just about everything under the sun on the their head. I saw women with bananas, men with toilet paper, a man with a basket with ducks and on and on. It was very entertaining. The big attraction at this market, however, was the amazing array of cloth and second hand clothing. I presume most of the second hand clothing came from North America because I saw lots of shirt with American references. (I had always heard that excess clothing from Goodwill and other stores get bundled up and sent to Africa. This market was living proof.) As I wandered I saw tailors on high rise platforms sewing custom made clothing and women crowded around bins pulling out the latest “imports”. It seemed like everybody needed new clothes.
There were also oodles of what I presume were black market electronics being sold for next to nothing. No idea if any of the products worked, but if you wanted new parts for your T.V. or the latest iPhone, you can them for very little in Kamapala.
I finally had enough “market” time and wandered out on the street in search of Uganda Crafts 2000, a nonprofit, fair trade craft shop selling products made by and benefiting disabled and widowed women. As I left the market, the street scene was one chaotic jumble of traffic, pollution and humanity. Not that many horns, but an awful lot of shouting and dodging buses and “boda bodas” (the motorcycle form of taxi). I felt like I had walked into a version of National Geographic as people wandered by carrying live chickens and geese (even heard the geese honk) and balancing a myriad of “stuff” on their heads. The street was lined with tiny shops and stalls filled with everything from beauty salons to Sim card sales. As I walked, the one thing that kept coming back to me was the enormous numbers of young people I saw and the lack of elderly folks. I later found out the reason. The average life span of a Ugandan is 45 years. Good God!
Anyway, after wandering around for a bit, I discovered that it was too far to walk to Uganda Crafts 2000 so I tracked down a special hire cab (unmarked taxis to avoid the city licensing requirements) and set off through the maze of traffic and pedestrians with my driver. We found the store and I went in and bought … four Christmas ornaments. YES! The streak continues … I have yet to visit a country where I haven’t been able to find an ornament. With purchases in hand, my driver took me back to Nakesero Market where I was to meet my hotel driver at 2:00. I had just enough time to stop into a bar and grab a Nile Gold (yummy lager beer). The music left a lot to be desired though (non stop Kenny Rogers, who is apparently incredibly popular here … go figure!) and the ambiance was a little lacking, but the beer and the chair hit the spot.
Se finally picked me up and we headed out through the dreaded traffic to the relative peace of my hotel. It had been a rather exhausting day and it was time to relax, have some dinner and call it an early night before my trip to Jinja the next day. Uh … think again. I no sooner got settled into bed and was just dozing off when I heard noises out on my veranda area (I had a ground floor room). I lay there for a minute and realized that some people had apparently taken up residence on my lounge chairs right outside my room. Huh? I opened the curtain to see that two people were sitting on chairs on the grassy area just beyond my veranda. I decided to let it go, got back into bed and was just about asleep when I heard some rather loud sounds. Are your kidding me??? This couple were going at it right outside my door. I got up, unlocked my sliding door and …. “Excuse me. Do you mind? I am trying to sleep here. Take it somewhere else. You have 30 seconds before I call security.” A young woman’s voice from the dark apologized and the two of them started grabbing clothes. It appeared to be a couple teenagers who most likely were from the village below and wanted to have some romance in the great outdoors with a view of the lights of Kampala. Just my luck!
I finally got some sleep, but was up bright an early for my trip to Jinja. Jinja is about an hour and a half from Kampala, is the source of the Nile and home to some of the finest white water rafting in the world. The upper stretch of the Nile just outside Jinja has class IV and V rapids (and one class VI), but is considered relatively safe because of the depth of the water and the lack of rocks and logs (unlike the Pacific NW). I had read about a company called Adrift, which originated the rafting expeditions on the Nile over 20 years ago and had the urge to give it a go. (Adrift has apparently even take Prince William rafting on the Nile). I had only one fear … I didn’t want to be eaten by a crocodile (yes my greatest fear rises again!) However, before I booked, the folks at Adrift assured me the area they raft is free from crocs. I sure as hell hope so!
Anyway, the good folks at Adrift picked me up at 7:00 a.m. sharp and we were off to Jinja. I was the only one on the bus, but was assured we would be joining 21 other folks who had camped at Jinja overnight. As we drove, the trip to Jinja was more of the same interesting mix of traffic, pedestrians and village life. We did, however, pass by Nelson Mandela football stadium, which seemed very modern and out of place in the mix of cinderblock houses and lean-to sheds with metal roofs that served as stores, which we passed along the two lane road. As we got closer to Jinja, the scenery shifted from non stop villages to more agriculture including tea fields and sugar cane. We finally crossed the bridge over the Nile into Jinja and arrived at the Adrift facilities, a combination campsite, bar and rafting headquarters smack dab on the banks of the Nile.
About 15 minutes after I arrived, the guides loaded up the bus and we were off to the launch site. We stopped and picked up a group of 11 (all loud, obnoxious Frenchmen) to make it a total of 22. The guides divided us up and stuck me with 5 Frenchmen, a Brit and a gal from India. Our guide for the day was “Big J”. He told us to lather on the suncreen (it was a gorgeous day), grab some breakfast (sausage and egg on a stick – and about the best I can say was that it was filling), put on our life vests and helmets and get down to the river. The worst part of the walk down to the river was the fact we were shoeless (we were told not to bring shoes to the raft) so my poor soft pedicured feet made it a miserable track across the clay and pea gravel down to the water.
We got situated in the raft and introduced ourselves (I was on the left of the raft second from the front between Olivier (French dude) and Graham (the Brit). Big J then told us where to sit (on the edge of the raft), told us to watch for crocs (that did not get a laugh from me) and gave us a little introduction to commands. I have rafted a number of times before so none of it was new to me. Once we had the commands down, we practiced paddling to Big J’s commands. The most important command we needed to remember was that once we hit the rapids, we had to slide down into the main part of the raft, grab the rope that encircles the raft and keep the paddle outside the and under our hand which is supposed to be grabbing the rope. (I once rafted with a gal who broke her nose when someone smacked her in the face with the paddle.) After we had the maneuvering down, we next practiced climbing in and out of the raft from the water. Fortunately, the water was very warm. Finally, we practiced flipping the raft. Yikes! I had never flipped a raft or even been thrown out of a raft for that matter. Of course I had never rafted Class IV and V rapids either. Once we got comfortable with being stuck under the raft in the water it was time to set out
We had just enough time to revel in our success and catch our breath before we were onto the next set of rapids. I could see that this wasn’t nearly as deep a drop, but the water looked really, really angry. We followed the commands and hit the crouch just as the raft hit the first set of waves hard. We were just recovering when the second drop hit and the next thing I knew, I was crashing into the water and being sucked under the overturned raft. The water pulled me under and I stuggled to push up under the raft where the air pockets were. Just as I pushed up, I saw the raft flip up slightly and I ducked under the raft and popped to the surface gulping for any air I could breath. I was scared out of my bloody mind! I swirled and bobbed to the end of the rapids and looked around to see that the other 7 were scattered all over, but I was the furthest downstream. One of the safety kyakers caught up with me, told me to grab the strap on the kayak, lift my feet and he would help me through the last few waves further on. Once we were through that (which was a walk in the park compared to “Bubugo” that we had just run, I climbed on the raft of another group and waited for my group to catch up with me.
When I was finally reunited with my raft, we we all compared wounds. I had a huge blue bump covering my left hand, two red marks on my left leg (which I was certain would be bruises) and a bruised neck. Not to mention that I gulped more Nile water than I cared to think about. Wonder how that is going to treat me over the next couple days? And … I was missing a contact lens. (Good thing I brought spares.)
Anyway, after the first two rapids, the next two hours were a breeze. We paddled through villages and past corn fields and saw tons of kids swimming in the water. We were even serenaded by kids singing songs in Swahili. Now THIS is what I signed up for (and OK the thrill of the rapids, but the kids singing was really cool).
Just before lunch we hit the final rapids known as the “Bad Place”. It started out as a Class VI rapids and “eases into a Class V. Adrift does not let anyone run the Class VI, so we had to put in at an inlet and walk around the Class VI rapids to the beginning of the “easy” rapids. At this point, me and everyone else were scared out of our minds. This set of rapids was huge, angry and very, very loud. In fact it was so mean looking, the sun even went behind the clouds as we were putting in. I was seriously shaking at this point along with everyone else. Anyway, we took our positions in the raft and shoved off. Before I even had a chance to think, we were in the middle of it, water swamping out boat, bodies being thrown around, and our raft being pushed up, down, around in a circle and back down again. Miraculously we did not tip or lose anyone out of the boat. I was, however, exhausted and my forefinger had somehow been smashed in the process.
We finally put in for lunch. We ended up having to climb up a hill and it was all I could do to crawl to the lunch area. I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure I could make the afternoon, but I damned well wasn’t going to quit. Turns out the decision was a good one. The afternoon was childs play compared to what we went through in the morning. There were some big waves, but no huge drops and no back to back rapids. We had plenty of time to enjoy the ride and the smaller rapids. However, by the end of the day, I looked like a battered woman. My legs were covered in bruises, my hand had a huge bump the size of a plumb and my left forearm was sore to touch and covered in bruises. Would I do it again? No way. Was I glad I did it? You betcha. Wouldn’t change a thing. It was a blast even with the obnoxious Frenchman. Although Olivia turned out to be a good guy, I can’t say the same for the rest of the cheap French jerks who did not leave a tip for our guide or our driver. Adrift was a first class operation and the guides, rescue kayakers, bus driver and the rest were all friendly and fun. They deserved to be compensated with a tip that showed these kind folks that people appreciated their services. In addition, Uganda is a very poor country. How difficult is it to hand over $5 or $10 as a tip when you have spent $100 for the day? Geez. (OK end of rant.)
Anyway, after we enjoyed a couple beverages, we made the long trek back to Kamapala with a full bus of exhausted people. It was a slow arduous trip and all any of us wanted to do was get back to wherever we were staying, get cleaned up and get some sleep. I know I did. Tomorrow I was off to Queen Elizabeth Park, about a half day drive from Kamapala for the start of my safari and gorilla treking. I was also going to stand on the Equator. Hot damn!!