Rain, and Kampala Serena

What is the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room? At Kampala Serena, I sit on the balcony.

It’s raining in Kampala. Softly. A mid-morning shower, the kind that tempts you to walk into it. You know the one, that cleanses everything and makes plants glisten. And when you look at it, it’s almost as if you can see each thread of rain.

I’m watching it rain from my balcony at Kampala Serena. Sitting in a bathrobe and trying to cure a hangover with a cup of coffee. It’s not working.

After a random week in this capital of hills and bodabodas, we finally made it. Kampala Serena was a 65-room conference hotel called the Nile, built in 1975, that fell into disrepair as governments came and fell. It came into Serena’s hands in 2005, and is now a work of art.

Finding it on Nakasero Hill was like looking for a lighthouse on top of a hill. It was hilarious though, that my last goodbye to downtown Kampala was exactly where it had started. My rider chose a different route there, and then he seemed confused and lost. But he finally made it. As had become a thing now, we found everyone else waiting for me. We checked in and had dinner with Ugandan bloggers and pens. By the end of it, I was trying to barter for Olive Nakiyemba’s t-shirt (It didn’t work).

Look at the way she’s sipping her juice innocently, as if she’s not about to break a man’s heart.

From where I’m sitting, the rain is falling on what feels like a patch of forest within the grounds of the hotel. It’s falling on the water lilies floating on the pond below, and the red outdoor tents behind it. It’s falling on the concealed extension work to my left, and the pool far below it. It’s even falling on this guy who emerges from a path among the trees, walking briskly, as if he is in a hurry to get somewhere, but not to get away from the rain.

But that’s actually not what I’m thinking about as I sit here, watching it rain softly. What’s on my mind is something Allan, a Ugandan who lives in Rwanda and is married to a Kenyan (the true East African this one), asked no one in particular last night.

“What’s the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room?”

It sounds like an odd question until we start answering. One person sprawls himself on the bed, while the other delicately unpacks her main bags. I know someone else who uses the washroom, whether they have the urge to or not. Another showers even if meeting time is three minutes away. Allan shuffles a few things all over. He first strips at the door, making sure to toss everything everywhere, and then he walks around creating some chaos in the room. The perfection in a city hotel, like this one, unnerves him.

How is one even supposed to leave this bed the morning after, for meetings and adulting?

I find the balcony, if there is one. I do this even on room visits, where I wander away from the hotel manager explaining away different amenities. Then I just stand there. When I enter my room alone (when I finally do given my history of losing key cards) then I go there and sit. If there is no chair I drag one out. The one I am on now I dragged out five minutes after we first checked in yesterday. I wasn’t even in the room for ten.

I also read welcome notes, and if they are physical I put them back on the nightstand. When I leave, I carry them with me. I am not even sure why.

The truth is, even if it’s on the TV, I still find a way to take it home (the message, not the screen).

We all seem to instinctively do things to create our own space in hotel rooms. Little quirky things that, if you were to accidentally stagger later into the wrong room, you would immediately know. Yet you’d barely been there after check in.

It matters especially in city hotels, which are homes within the chaos of cities. Ugandans often say that Nairobi moves too fast and furious for them, but I don’t know which Kampala they are comparing it with. My introduction to this city of impalas and rolling hills was on the back of a boda boda in a mass of other bodas, all hooting relentlessly. All moving in the same direction, all trying to do that faster than everyone else. All doing it like we are on MotoGP.

I am used to matatus doing this in Nairobi, and they are large enough to see. In Kampala, bikes seemingly appear from nowhere, thousands upon thousands of them, like a body of ants ridden by men in formal shirts.

Then you walk into this, and all is forgotten.

But then, in the evening after a similar experience, I found the Haimish Line, that Yiddish phrase that suggests “warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.” I found it in Dar es Salaam Serena early last year, which is always unnerving at first because city hotels are by design imposing. They are designed for grandeur, for conferences, for the serious business traveller with serious business things on her mind. Dar Serena is impossible to miss, and when you walk into the foyer, it feels like walking into a grand palace.

So is Kampala Serena on Kintu Road.

Unless you approach it from this angle, of course. [Image Source]

Yet when you venture inside, it gets smaller and smaller. Then when you lock the door behind you, give it a shuffle, touch its essence, and lie on the bed, or you walk to the balcony and watch the skies above Kampala pour, softly, it begins to feel like a familiar, perfect place.

What is the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room?

Find the Kampala Serena rate card here [Link], and read about my next experience in Uganda here [Link]

Owaahh, 2017

One story is good,

till Another is told.