DAY 29 - Kampala, Uganda
I had hoped to wake up early enough to see the sun rising over Lake Victoria but evidently my bunk was just too comfortable and by the time I got up, dawn had already broken. We reached Port Bell (which sits on the outskirts of Kampala) at around 10:30am. Unsurprisingly, there is very little difference between the port in Mwanza and Port Bell. In fact, the only distinguishing features between the two are the different dilapidated ships that sit rusting in the sun just off to the side of the docks.
There were a couple of slight hiccups as I passed through Ugandan immigration. First, according to my guidebook the cost of a Ugandan visa was supposed to be $20 but when I asked for my visa the immigration officer told me I had to pay $50. I thought he was trying to pull a fast one on me so I objected… clearly not a smart move on my part because at the first utterance of protest, the officer’s nostrils flared and he started screaming at me that if I didn’t pay I wasn’t going to be able to enter the country – I subsequently discovered that the price of a visa had recently gone up and that my guidebook was simply out of date… eek!
Sufficiently convinced that there was no way around having to cough up the extra $30, I then tried to pay with a grimy $20 note that I had been struggling to offload for the past few weeks. nb. The dominant black-market currency of East Africa is the USD and you will often be able to pay in dollars when you are out of the local currency. However, many local banks/traders are reluctant to take old, wrinkled or dirty looking notes and on several occasions over the past few weeks people had refused to take the $20 bill in question. However, the immigration officer didn’t want to have anything to do with it either. I feigned not having any other cash on me in the hope that he would be forced to take it but he wasn't unimpressed and simply said that unless I could find some other cash right here and now, he was not going to stamp me into the country. Of course, I actually had a bundle of crisp twenties on me but I now had to go through this big charade whereby I pretended to ask one of my fellow travelers (a guy named Alfaz) to give me $20 and tell him that I would pay him back when we got into town (while actually just handing over one of my own, cleaner notes) so that I didn't look like I just lied to a government official!
Thankfully, my passport was finally stamped and I could enter the country. What is more, it turned out that Alfaz was a pretty nice guy and he even helped me find a place to stay once we arrived in downtown Kampala - something I was extremely grateful for once we reached the Kampala bus depot. Kampala is, in a word, absolute chaos! Organised chaos perhaps, but chaos nonetheless. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people in the one place. People were moving frantically in every direction, most with boxes or bags of something on their head. Minibuses were pervasive, clogging the streets and fighting against the sea of pedestrians and people on motorbikes for the slightest patch of space. Most of the bikes are actually moto-taxis (called bota-botas) and their drivers weave fearlessly in and out of the traffic and around the swarms of pedestrians. I would count the Kampala bota-bota drivers as second only to those of Cotonou in terms of courage, craziness and shear pervasiveness!
Alfaz led me to place called Taj Hotel which was conveniently located on a hill that overlooked the bus depot. Most of the hostels in my Lonely Planet were a couple of kms outside of town, so i figured it made more sense to fork out a little extra on accommodation in order to be closer to the action. And what action there was! I have never felt as much energy coming from a city as I did when I looked back at the depot and its surrounding market from my vantage point on the hill above. Buzzing with life and full of sights, sounds and smells I had never experienced before… I was filled with both excitement and apprehension. I couldn’t wait to drop my things and go out and explore this place!
I dived right in, fighting with the locals for my inch of sidewalk and seemingly swimming upstream against a sea of people. I walked the streets for hours, strolled through the market and shuffled around in the various stores that sold everything from second-hand books to electronics. The whole experience was surreal and I guess I must have been too busy soaking it all up because as I fought my way down some overflowing, inner-city street a shirtless man with the body of an Olympic athlete and a 100kg bag of rice spread across his broad shoulders hissed at me to move out of his way. In my haste to make room, I jumped into the muddy gutter and was almost cleaned up by a passing truck. The vehicle missed me by a matter of inches and left me with my heart in my mouth and my pulse racing. It was at that point that I decided I needed to find somewhere to escape the chaos and so headed for a coffee shop called 1000 Cups, which was recommended in my lonely planet.
Just as an aside, I was saddened to read the other day that there were demonstrations in the streets of Kampala and that the government has been accused of violently repressing protests over the high price of food. It is also scary to think that this kind of violence can erupt so spontaneously and that I could have so easily been caught in the midst of it all if I was writing a true travel blog and not just recounting my experiences from a few years ago!
1000 Cups wasn’t cheap but it was the closest I’d come to a real cup of coffee since I’d left home. While I was there I had a brief chat with some Americans from DC and some others from the South who now own an orphanage in Jinja. I recounted my near death experience to them and they suggested I head to Garden City with them if I was interested in a more tranquil setting. Having never heard of this Garden City place, but with my mind throwing up images of some horticultural oasis in the middle of the city, I said sure and we all piled into a cab. I was soon to discover that Garden City was not actually a garden but in fact is essentially just a shopping mall. However, it did have a proper cinema (and Uganda's only escalator, apparently) – something I hadn’t seen since I arrived in Africa – so I figured I would take advantage of it and I bought a ticket to some Keanu Reeves movie that I had never heard of. I spent the 20min I had to kill before the movie started standing outside the Ugandan equivalent of Harvey Norman/Best Buy watching the end of an IPL cricket game. I had never seen an IPL game before and so was blown away to be standing in a Ugandan mall, watching Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey killing it for some team called the Chenai Superkings!?!?!
The movie was pretty ordinary although it did get me thinking about Alisa again – she has a certain fondness for Keanu! I had received a reply from her when my phone finally picked up signal again in the morning. Her response was a simple “Who is this?”, to which I replied (somewhat cornily) “Just someone who is thinking of you”. I knew I probably wouldn’t hear back from her for most of the day because of the time difference between here and New York but it was now mid-afternoon her time and I still hadn’t heard anything. I was dying to know what she was thinking but I didn’t want to be too pushy so I resisted the urge to send a follow up message.
I eventually left Garden City on the back of a bota-bota. The driver had originally asked for 4000 shillings but I had managed to haggle him down to 1700, which (secretly) made me pretty happy with myself. By the time I got back to the hotel it was close to 1am and I was ready to hit the hay when all of a sudden I received a text from Alisa. I nervously replied and we texted back and forth a couple more times, both of us holding back a little and just feeling the other person out. However, just as I was preparing to open up and really tell her how I felt… I ran out of credit!! So at 1:30am I had to go downstairs and run around the streets of Kampala looking for somewhere open that would sell me some phone credit. I finally found a place and raced back to the hotel to top-up my phone but of course, I had a Tanzanian phone chip and this was Ugandan credit, so even though the credit was from the same phone provider, it wouldn’t work! All this was taking up precious time and all I could think about was Alisa sitting at home in New York wondering why I wasn’t writing anything back… what if she thought I was avoiding her or had been offended by her last text??
In the end, I figured out how to put a free call through to the phone provider’s customer service line and they were able to transfer my Ugandan credit into Tanzanian credit (or something like that) and I finally got my phone credit topped up. By this stage I thought it best to try and put in a call to Alisa instead of just texting back after such a long pause. Alisa didn’t pick up on my first try so I left her an awkward and embarrassing voicemail message which asked her to call me back “but only if she wanted to”. Thankfully she did and we ended up talking and catching up for hours… in fact, it was almost 5am and the sun was coming up by the time we finally said goodnight.