Day 28 - Mwanza, TZ to Port Bell, Uganda
Joseph came and met me out front of the hotel around 9am this morning. We were headed to the outskirts of town to meet his family but first, I needed to pick up some washing that I had dropped off at the local laundromat a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately, it turned out that the laundry was closed– I hadn't realised that it was a Sunday! I was seriously worried because I was supposed to be leaving on a cargo boat to Kampala that afternoon and half my clothes were potentially going to be staying behind! Thankfully, Joseph was with me and he was able to ask around at the neighbouring shops until he found someone with the laundry owner’s phone number which he was able to call. Joseph somehow talked the owner into coming in on his day off, opening up his store and giving me my clothes.
A little over an hour later, with the laundry situation finally resolved, we squeezed ourselves into a minibus and took off in the direction of Joseph’s home. The minibus pulled up next to a giant coca-cola bottling factory with high walls and a barbed-wire fence around it and Joseph told me to jump out. He then lead me down a dirt track that took us past the factory and through some fields behind it. After what seemed like a long walk (at least 1-2km) past some small, miserable looking shacks we arrived at a significantly larger, more modern home than we had seen since we turned off the main road. Joseph’s house was easily the nicest in the area. It was still a work in progress to a certain extent – missing a few finishing touches but otherwise structurally complete. What is more impressive is that Joseph apparently built the house himself.
Joseph introduced me to his wife-to-be and their two gorgeous twin girls. The girls were absolutely adorable and I spent some time mucking around with them in the back yard while Joseph’s fiancée finished preparing lunch. Lunch was a simple but hearty serving of beans and rice. We sat around the table talking while the kids made a mess of the food. I would have loved to stay longer but I was anxious to get to the port as soon as possible. So around 1:30pm I waved goodbye to Joseph’s family while he and I made our way back to the main road. I was hoping to hop a minibus back into town straight away but Joseph wouldn’t let me leave without first meeting his mother and cousins who lived across the street. I knew I was pushing it but it was also pretty clear that this was very important to Joseph and I didn’t want to say no. After the round of introductions and a mandatory cup of tea, I finally said goodbye to Joseph and made a bee-line for the port.
Kennedy was waiting for me when I arrived and he immediately introduced me to the port’s immigration officer who was responsible for stamping crewmen in and out of the country. The immigration officer looked me up and down before gesturing for me to follow him into his office (a modified cargo container). He sat me down and proceeded to explain to me that cargo ships were only supposed to carry cargo and that it was in fact illegal for them to take passengers. I pleaded ignorance and told him some story about how someone at the immigration office back in town had told me that all I had to do was pay some sort of “fee” and I would be allowed to ride on the ship – having hung around in Mwanza for so long waiting for this ship I wasn’t in the mood to get too cute with this guy. In fact, I was more than happy to throw a few buck his way if it meant that I was able to board the ship hassle free. At the word ‘fee’ the immigration officer’s ears pricked up and his eyes began to sparkle. I swear, he was trying desperately to fight the urge to smile but I could tell by the way the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards that inside he thought Christmas had come early! In the end, it cost me a nice crisp US$10 bill just to get my passport stamped.
As I was about to leave, the immigration officer motioned for me to lean in close and whispered in my ear that it was “very very important that I don’t tell anyone about being able to ride as a passenger on the cargo ship”... Oops! I wonder what he would think if he knew I was blogging about him to the world right now?? The irony of the immigration officer’s statement did not fully sink in until I actually climbed aboard the M.V. Umoja and discovered that one level of the ship was fully decked out for passengers. One of the crew met me at the top of the stairs and immediately escorted me to a bunk (I had assumed I would be sleeping on the deck!). I was also told that the kitchen would be serving dinner later that night (for a small fee, of course) and breakfast in the morning before we reached Port Bell. Quietly pleased with the whole set up, I made myself comfortable and waited for our departure. Like with most forms of transport in Africa, my fellow travelers and I were forced to sit around for a good couple of hours before we finally got moving. In fact, it was so late by the time we got going that the sun was actually setting as we pulled out of Mwanza harbour.
However, I couldn’t have cared less about the wait. As I watched the city disappear behind me, I was transfixed by the gorgeous expanse of water stretching out ahead of me. The fresh air, the sunset and the deep blue lake, it was all so beautiful. So beautiful in fact that I desperately wanted to share it with someone and for the first time since I landed in Africa I felt genuinely alone. This was a once in a lifetime moment and there was no-one else here to experience it with me. For a long time now, whenever I found myself with time to think and reflect (which obviously happens a lot when you are traveling by public transport across Africa) my mind kept turning to one person in particular. It wasn’t my family (although they were often in my thoughts) and it wasn’t my friends back in Oz… it was Alisa.
Just by way of background for those of you who don’t know, Alisa and I met while I was doing an internship at the UN in New York during July/August of 2007. We had an amazing summer and continued to correspond almost daily from the moment I returned to Australia. Alisa even came out to visit me in Sydney for a couple of weeks. However, the distance was putting a strain on our budding relationship and both of us were struggling with the uncertainty that comes from falling in love with someone who lives on the other side of the world. I knew I would be finishing law school in Feb ’08 and at one point there was the chance that I would be able to get some more work in New York, at least until I started at a law firm in Sydney later that year. However, the New York job fell through and I made an impulsive decision to go traveling through Africa instead. I had clearly put my desire to see the world ahead of our relationship and Alisa wasn’t going to hang around to see if I would eventually change my mind. In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for a long-term relationship (I was only one year removed from an intense 5yr relationship) let alone a long-distance/long-term relationship! Long story short, about a month before I left for Africa ‘Alisa and I’ (read: she) decided it was best if we didn’t contact each other anymore.
We hadn’t spoken in almost two months but leaning over the railing watching the stars reflected in the perfectly still lake, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I cracked and sent Alisa a text. I didn’t know what to say after such a long period of radio silence so I simply asked her what I most wanted to know… “What are you doing right now?”. Of all the questions, this was the one that had been stuck in my brain these past few months. I just desperately wanted to know where she was, who she was with, what she was doing. This question wasn’t born of some crazy jealousy or possessiveness, it had more to do with just wanting to know that she was ok, that she was happy, that she was safe. We had had an amazing connection and although it was relatively brief, I felt closer to her than anyone I had ever met before. Just because I wasn’t ready to take a chance on a long-term/long-distance relationship didn’t mean that I didn’t still care about her or have feelings for her. Regardless of whether I was going to be a part of her life going forward, I still wanted nothing but joy and happiness for her and not knowing where she was or how she was feeling was eating me up inside.
Unfortunately, the ship was steaming out into the middle of the lake by the time I actually sent the text and all too soon (ie. before I got a response) we had left civilization behind and I had lost signal. Knowing I would have to wait until morning before receiving a response, if any, I took one last long look out over the lake before turning around and rejoining my fellow travelers. Thankfully, my travel companions were in good spirits and I was able to suppress my emotions with various distractions. We ate, we drank and we talked through the night. A couple of the crew taught me how to play draughts (using coke bottle tops in lieu of real checkers) and I even won a couple of times. In hindsight, despite the anxious pit in my stomach most of the night, this was easily the most enjoyable trip of all my travels. There was a proper bed and a sit down meal, interesting people, cool fresh air and the ability to take a walk and stretch your legs if you wanted… it doesn’t get much better than that.