In Uganda’s vibrant capital, I almost lose a leg, someone gets drugged, and we almost get arrested in the middle of the night.
I hadn’t realized what I’d just done until he sternly looked at me and threw the Yellow Fever certificate back. “What am I supposed to do with this?!” He asked, clearly thinking I’d been pranking him.
“Urrrmm, sorry. Honest mistake.” I offered, with a slight quiver in my voice.
A few things had happened that had led us to this point, sitting in a taxi in the middle of the road somewhere in Kampala. The only Ugandan in the car, the taxi driver, had abandoned us right there, at 3am, as he ran to find fuel for his stalled vehicle. He had offered no explanation, just jumped out of the car and fled into the dark.
A few minutes later, the cops showed up.
A young cop hopped off the driver’s seat and walked to us, demanding answers. I was riding shotgun, and without thinking, we divided duties. Vionna’s work was to keep Anton quiet (he had been drugged earlier, but we didn’t know it at the time), and mine was to smooth talk our way out of spending the night in jail.
“Where is your work permit?!” He asked as he scanned my ID card, which I had finally found in my pocket. Then he peeped at the back, and then back at me, waiting for an answer.
“We are just tourists,” I’d caught myself in the middle of an interrogation. Technically, touring was actually work for us. But I wasn’t going to start explaining to a strange, curious cop what kind of writing would come from this. I also wasn’t going to be a smartass, which at 3am and in a bit of a drunken haze, was hard not to do.
This wasn’t the first arrest we’d seen in the three days we had been frolicking in Uganda. The first was right at the border, after an Indian man innocently placed a joint on the basket behind the security scanner. Why he hadn’t figured that carrying drugs across borders is the worst thing you can do fails me, but that mistake kept us waiting for another hour.
Then, as we weaved our way to Kampala, the driver of the Modern Coast bus overtook dangerously. He missed the traffic cops staring at him; Ugandan and Tanzanian traffic cops shouldn’t be hard to see, they wear crisp white. That took half an hour to resolve, about 10 minutes of which were spent listening to a sermon from a cop about how she only stopped us out of concern for our lives.
But here, in the middle of the night, we were alone with a curious cop in an abandoned taxi. Three young Kenyans couldn’t just be sitting there without something sinister going on.
A while back, I realized that although I’ve travelled quite a lot, I’ve never actually done a long distance bus ride. I’d been in tour vans and Landcruisers on long distance trips, most of them for several days and over thousands of kilometers. But I’d never simply entered a bus to somewhere. That place became Kampala, and on the other side, I met Nile Special and my life changed. In between though, it was a struggle keeping the kneecaps safe from Modern Coast’s ridiculously tiny leg space.
Everything I’d read about Kampala before I got there promised me a pulsating city with organized chaos. It’s bodabodas, a friend told me, were not just the workhorse of the city of bananas. They were its pulse.
What they all forgot to mention was that the first mystery I’d set myself on in Uganda wouldn’t be Crane Bank. It would be formal shirts. No one seems to know why Kampala’s boda boda riders wear formal shirts, properly tucked in. For a profession reknown for recklessness, which would leave me with a long scratch from my thigh to my ankle by the end of the week, the formal shirts were odd.
Even my Ugandan friends didn’t know why. Actually, most of them had never noticed.
The prevailing theory is that it shows they take their jobs seriously. You know, how you know someone is serious about taking you somewhere because they are smartly dressed. But it comes at a cost; most of them don’t wear anything warm on top, so pneumonia is now a bigger cause of death than accidents. And if you know how Kampala’s boda bodas are ridden, that’s actually quite surprising.
But bikes aren’t the only throb this city has. We’d spent most of the night we got briefly stopped in a club called Gabz. Outside, it looked like a nonchalant building without much happening. But once you opened the door, it was like you were walking into an alien planet. From nearly total silence outside, except a far off sound of music, you walked into total decadence.
Anton had been our scout as we sat outside and ate terrible food. When he found space next to three skimpily dressed ladies, he set himself and his beer there. They drugged him, but it would be another four or so hours before we figured it out. By that time, we were struggling to carry a giant man up the road to our AirBnB house.
We’d survived all that time talking to cops and waiting for the taxi guy thinking that he was just high.
I think Kampala’s secrets are hidden in how chaotic it first feels, and yet how peaceful it actually is. When it rains it pounds hard, drowning with it the sound of waves of boda bodas hooting at everything to get them off their way. In our week there, I kept getting independent-minded riders who refused to follow the other two carrying my company. This shouldn’t be a problem, but the new routes seemed to always end up longer than the others.
In a new city where my Nairobi-street Kiswahili is thought of as an aggressive language, that’s actually a problem. That’s how I ended up late on our foray into Wandegeya, only to find that my travel companions had already concluded that I had been in an accident. Over Wandegeya’s world-famous chicken and contraband beer, sitting on a verandah behind a school, I forgave them for their darkness.
I was in pain anyway because my rider had decided that my right leg didn’t need to come back with me to Nairobi. I actually felt the jolt of pain before I cursed out loud and looked at the offending lorry, only to find we had actually ridden into it. But that, a chuckling friend later told me, was my official welcome. I could now eat rolex on the streets at 2am like any other hangovered Ugandan. What I didn’t tell him was that almost immediately after taking the photo above, the rider hit a pothole and I was sitting badly. It wasn’t just a leg I almost lost in Kampala, I also nearly left my coccyx there.
At 3am though, I was talking my way out of an arrest. The cop kept moving his eyes, and asking the same questions over and over again. He finally switched from why the cab was in the middle of the road with its lights on, to where we were living.
“Salama Road.” I offered, finally hoping this was progress. “That’s the region I police,” he said as he finally seemed to relax, “Don’t mess there or I will arrest you.” Then he left. As simply as he had gotten off his car, which I realized midway through our conversation had about ten people who had been arrested, he left.
In another ten minutes, the taxi guy finally came back with a jerrican of fuel. He seemed to think the entire encounter was funny, as if encounters with the law ever are.
A day later, we finally moved into the sanity of Kampala Serena, and then to the luxuries of Lake Victoria Serena Camp.
Read more on that next week.
One story is good,
till Another is told.