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9.14.2010

Staying Alert

The roads in Uganda were significantly worse than Kenya. And our bus driver seemed to be determined to make up the time lost at the border. This is when I discovered that Kampala Coach Ltd. had been investing more in red paint than in shock absorbers. The potholes were bone jarring and the occasional sudden swerves  attempting to avoid them had a tendency to put you in your neighbor's lap or on the floor of the aisle. After the first dumping into the aisle I moved to the seat by the stairs where I could wedge my pack and small bag between me and the barrier and outer wall as pre-emptive "air-bags."  This seat also provided great air-flow from the door that did not really shut. I pulled out my only long-sleeved shirt for warmth.

This seat also afforded me a view of our driver and the scene out  the  front windshield. Our driver was taking regular sips from a flask.

"Our driver appears to be drinking." I said to the man next to me.
"Oh, yes, they all do that - they need to stay awake, you know."
"No, I mean he seems to be drinking alcohol."
"Yes, a little whiskey to stay sharp."
"Wouldn't you want to take tea or coffee to stay awake?"
"No! tea makes a person ready for bed!"

I encountered this idea several other times in East Africa - the belief that alcohol keeps you sharp and tea makes you sleepy. (Most Africans don't have much experience with coffee)  I tried to explain stimulants and depressants but it was a lost cause.  I asked around and drunk driving  (emphasis on severely drunk) is discouraged, but drinking and driving is not actually illegal in most of the countries I was in.

Many of my fellow passengers had the gift of "sleeping in any circumstance." I tried and failed. We flew through villages on a regular basis and I watched as roadside shops stayed open for late business and eventually all closed but the drinking houses. In between villages it was truly dark, our driver was making liberal use of the entire road, as evidenced by the occasional sudden headlights appearing around what I presumed from the centripetal forces was a blind curve, with attendant blaring horns and cursing. 

I am sure that Kampala is a lovely city. I am sure that it is first rate in many ways. I am sure that Uganda has much to offer - I hear that there are 600 varieties of birds. But I saw none of that.  Whenever you enter a city by bus or train you see a different city than you see as a tourist flying in for your vacation. We reached the far outskirts of the city at about 10pm. Not much was open.  As we entered the city everything was barred and gated like you would see in the bad parts of New York. But the homeless were out, and there are no city ordinances against garbage fires, so that is what they use for heat. And heat was needed as it was probably in the low sixties and dropping. The humans dressed in layers of rags around the fires lent a discernible air of Gehenna to the place. Dante would have been at home here.

We reached the bus station about 11:30. It had huge, arched, iron gates topped with the standard African replica spear heads decoration and  coils of razor wire on top. Inside the gates were a row of buses and above them a dimly lighted area. Our conductor said that there was no room for us inside the gates and that we would be parking here in the street. Transfer passengers were told to make their way up to the office and check in. Our driver opened his door and drained out into the dark. We all started to gather our things. The conductor was about to take off when a passenger near me shouted "Man! You aren't letting this Mzungu walk up there by herself, are you?" "Oh, Kswahili-curse-word, OK - stay where you are, I will go get some help." I was mildly concerned that he thought he needed help, but thanked the other passenger, who just shook his head. I was alone on the bus for a couple of minutes and there were men at the door calling for me, having marked my presence.  When the conductor came back with two other guys he gave me my intructions "Ok - in and up - don't Stop - stay right behind me!"  Off of the bus, my small phalanx of bus employees shouted and slapped and  pushed their way through a crowd of what I presume was mostly taxi drivers, sure that I was a potential fare to the nearest decent hotel.

Some of you have have experienced the African airport taxi crush. Bus station taxi drivers are several magnitudes more desperate and aggressive than that. Taxi drivers attempt to get a hold of your bag because they know if they get your bag - they will get you.

So many arms were reaching and tugging at my bags and shouting for me to join them. Other more ragged arms were also attempting to reach me, I presume a sprinkling of thieves and pickpockets - because that is just standard. I managed to keep my footing on very uneven ground in almost no light, with my top heavy pack being yanked left and right.  My tucked down head still identified the smells of burning garbage, human waste, goat Barbecue, stale beer, and unwashed and unwell humans. Not quite Reavers, but close. (sorry, Firefly reference)

When we got through the gates my phalanx reversed and pushed me up a small flight of stairs and to what I presumed was safety.










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