New Country, New Trek: Into Uganda

At night I lay sick in my saggy bed in my dingy motel in Bukoba, wishing that buses could leave later in the morning. I wanted to sleep in the next morning, but dawn-departure trips seemed the norm.

Surprisingly, I awoke feeling okay. In fact, I was eager to leave this city on the west coast of Lake Victoria. Today, I’d rattle along to the north coast. What’s more, I’d be leaving Tanzania for the first time since my arrival eight months earlier.

Where was I headed?

Uganda.

Uganda isn’t a super-famous country. It was once called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill for its charming landscapes and people. Ugandans have held onto that slogan by former colonial overseers.

Otherwise, Uganda might be best known for their eccentric leader from the 70’s, a portly tyrant named Idi Amin whose policies and directives decimated the economy, confiscated Asian-owned property and business, warred with Tanzania, executed enemies, and overall were indicative of what power-hungry leaders do. His legend goes so far as to include cannibalism. Regardless of that claim, which he smilingly denied to reporters while on exile in Saudi Arabia, a lot of people suffered and died under his control.

Since then, Uganda’s been much more peaceful and this pearl has been able to shine.

I was shining a bit more as well, feeling better crossing the border and entering this new country refreshed with a new vibe, new currency, and a higher fluency of English, the language of medium for schools here.

***

Unlike my two previous rides out of Arusha and Mwanza, our bus in the still-dark parking lot of the Bukoba bus station left on time. Thank God. Bukoba hadn’t been so good to me. We were well on our way before the sun rose.

And before long, we reached the Ugandan border.

Border town

Doing so, we all had to exit and first enter a trailer where Tanzanian customs authorized our departure.

Leaving’s easy, though I was a hair concerned, because Tanzania has a funny travel visa that’s good for 90 days, but valid for a year. Huh? Well, I leaned on the year thing, and it worked out fine. The man looked at my passport, back up at me, me to him with an innocent smile, and him back down to the passport to offer a stamp atop it. “Ka-chunk!”

Then we bus riders all paraded into a more official-looking building, where Ugandan men in uniforms behind glass waited our arrivals. I was the only non-East African. For these folks, border crossing is a cinch via their intergovernmental agreement. For me, it was a different story.

I approached and handed my passport to the medium-built, medium-aged mustached guy in blue and white uniform. He looked at my passport, looked back up at me, then I to him with a break of  a smile, and he to me with the same.

“You must be rich,” he said.

“No, actually I’m broke.”

Ignoring me, he continued, “Because right now you’re going to give me fifty dollars.”

I had anticipated this expense and had the bill, but tried to talk him down due to my brief stay.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re here for just an hour,” said the other customs guy behind the glass and clinching the matter.

I gave them one of my two fifty dollar bills. I would need the other for Kenya.

The bright side was that the Tanzania visa costs $100–though other Western and Eastern tourists would get theirs for $50. (All of these exchanges are done in US dollars.) I remember minutes into my arrival in Tanzania–even before leaving the airport–I had a minor protestation when I heard the large man in military uniform taking visitors’ passports say “$50” to one foreigner and then turning to me, looking at my passport, and saying, “$100.”

“What? You just said $50 to them,” I said.

“$100,” he said back sternly.

Alrighty then.

I’d find out that Americans are simply charged more and the theory floated around was that that was because of fees America charges visitors to the U.S. This is another article altogether: the plight of a Tanzanian (or someone from any dozens of poorer nations) trying to visit the U.S. My Coloradan friend in Tanzania, Kathy, was married to a Tanzanian man. Some months earlier, they had taken the necessary trip all the way to the capital, Dar es Salaam, paid the not negligible fee just to apply, and then swiftly received a rejection for his ability to join his wife when she went back to Colorado later that year. Details and reasoning aside, the lesson for us today is: be grateful you have that U.S. passport. Countless millions of people all over the planet wished they had that little blue booklet. And more than be grateful, use the darn thing.

Money changers had met us getting off the bus on the Tanzanian side. These men in casual, if not raggedly street clothes, whipped out all the colorful currencies in hand. Then they saw my color and came over. If you want to feel like a celebrity getting attention, take public transportation across East African borders.

One escorted me the whole way–from Tanzanian trailer, across the 30 yard stretch of no-man’s-land between the two countries, into the Ugandan customs office, and then back to the bus. There, I said goodbye to these:

Though I kept a couple of small TZ notes for souvenirs.

…and hello to these:

Ugandan currency is considerably weaker than Tanzanians. TZ shillings are about 1600:1 US dollar. UG shillings are 2600:1

After getting a small bite to eat (chapati: the thick flour tortilla-like food just like they make it in Tanzania), we hopped aboard on the Ugandan side and rode to Kampala. Maybe it was all in my head, but things felt different. I guess it was just cool to say, “I’m in Uganda” as the novelty of saying “I’m in Tanzania” had worn off by now.

Not long into this stretch of ride, we crossed the equator, which I thought was kinda nifty. Then not long after it, signs of Uganda’s capital began to be seen out my window.

Kampala is the city of Uganda. 1.2 million people along with outskirts that stretch for miles and miles. Indeed, we’d see signs of urbanization a good forty-five minutes before actually entering the city proper. Here’s some video of that approach:

Before I knew it, the bus stopped at a nondescript location in the city–a convenience store next to a busy street. Things here resembled the cities I had just been in, except for the prices all seeming high with the lower-valued Ugandan currency. A Snickers was 2500USH.

Minutes earlier, while busing through the outskirts, I had borrowed a woman’s phone (mine no longer worked here in Uganda) to call my host in Kampala. I had a tough time hearing my host, so gave it back to the woman, who was able to give her (my host) directions to where we’d be dropped off.

I waited at that convenience store.

I saw this advertisement:

Fifteen minutes later, I saw a young Ugandan woman hop off a motorbike taxi and approach in such a way as to have me suspect she was my host. With a purple hint in her shoulder-length hair, the petite woman in black business-casual outfit walked up to me in confidence and style.

She went by the name Nathy on Couchsurfing–the reliably-helpful web community of travelers/hosts that had found me lodgings in Arusha and Mwanza as well. With all my luggage, we needed two bikes, so she hopped on one to lead the way, and my guy followed. The motorbike wasn’t just the best way to get around the sometimes-congested streets of Kampala; it was also the best way to see the city.

It was the perfect introduction:

Nathy lived a good 20 minutes away. She shared a gated property off of an outskirt road lined with food markets, small service businesses such as shoe repair and furniture-making, and then a small, modern hotel across the street. The whole neighborhood offered a dusty, poorer feel than what you’d expect in the U.S.

Behind the thick, creaky gate, Nathy walked me into the house’s front yard, where a young boy and girl played. Their mother sat outside folding laundry. Nathy said hello, the kids and mom waved back. The mom smiled at me, and the kids followed Nathy and I into her side of the duplex. The family was evidently used to seeing foreign men come and go, as Nathy was an avid couchsurfer. And the kids, a cute 2-3 year old little girl in a white summer dress and a 4-5 year old boy bare-bottomed in nothing but a t-shirt, entered the home with us. They had another reason to come in. Nathy had snacks.

Nathy showed me my room, a small space with nothing but a single mattress on the floor. Worked for me. I’d sleep here the next four nights.

The next four days included explorations into the heart of Kampala’s markets, slums, and even a bit of nightlife. The following day, I’d tour a grand Bahá’í temple and palatial Muslim mosque. The exposure to, and education of, these religions in Uganda will be the focus next week.

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