I went to Uganda last week! Not only did I want to see more of East Africa, I met with Jimmy, A Ugandan from Gulu who’s starting an Affirm business there. It was great to see the country, meet the people, and learn more about African travel for my longer road trip to South Africa in March. Lessons learned include:
1. Stay with people you know to get the full experience
2. You save time and money with night buses
3. Bring mosquito spray
4. Cheap adventures are usually more adventurous than expensive ones
5 Hitchhiking is available as a last resort
After arriving in Kampala the first day and spending the night with people from EarthWise Ventures, I hopped on a bus to Gulu. The journey took us from the rain forest of Kampala, past the roaring Nile and wild baboons, to the bustling town of Gulu. Unfortunately, for the last 25+ years Gulu has been entangled in a series of wars and rebel groups, the most famous being The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by none other than Joseph Kony. Unbelievable atrocities have been committed in this place, but the people are remarkable. Only in the past 7 or 8 years has peace returned to the region and the internally displaced population begun to move back.
While my trip to Uganda often reminded me of Kenya visually and culturally, I gathered twinges of more solemn issues. Casually, a friend told me his mother was killed by an LRA raid while he was at school one day. Another gentleman told me that during Idi Amin’s reign, he was imprisoned for 3 weeks in a place where prisoners rarely. He still doesn’t know why his life was spared. Yet another talked about being hurdled from the top of a truck in a road accident and breaking his back. Life is fragile in Uganda, yet the peoples’ smiles and cheerfulness never ceased to amaze me. My complaints of being bitten by potentially malarial mosquitoes every night seemed to pale in comparison to the incredible endurance of the people I met.
My last full day in Gulu was spent on a “cheap adventure”. Instead of renting a car for $150 and seeing a local safari park/waterfall on the Nile, Jimmy and I rented a motorcycle for $8, put $5 of gas into it and took off for the bush. Our destination was Baker’s Fort, an Arab slave trading post abolished by the British in the 1870s. The 16km drive gave me plenty of time to take in the countryside (we even saw a snake). At the fort, our drunk tour guide spoke minimal English and didn’t know any answers to my questions, but the day proved to be memorable and informative nonetheless. I even drove the motorcycle home, with plenty of stares and shouts of “muzungu” from the people we passed.
I imagined that leaving Gulu would happen the same way I came: simply go to the bus station, buy a ticket on one of the many buses leaving and make your way back to Kampala. Not so. Apparently buses to Gulu continue to Juba, South Sudan. Getting to Gulu is easy because the buses start empty in Kampala, but when returning, passengers have to hope that someone gets off the bus from Juba in Gulu. Making matters worse, school was starting in Kampala the following Monday so everyone wanted to go in the direction I was traveling. After waiting amid dozens, if not hundreds of other impatient passengers, I decided my best option was to hitchhike in a private vehicle. Being white in Africa helped my chances immensely and I found a car after a while. Knowing passengers’ desperation, however, vehicle owners charged their hitchhikers for fuel. Since a private car charged more than a bus, we were hard-pressed to find many African passengers willing to pay the extra price. Needing only two more passengers (so they said), I recruited a reluctant Chinese couple to join us, thinking we would be on our way. The driver, who had other plans, found two more passengers to cram into the car before we could hit the road. The death stare I received from the Chinese lady was nothing compared to the relief of being on our way!
Unfortunately, the car was only traveling halfway down and I had to hitchhike again for the remainder of the journey to Kampala. The Chinese couple rented a motorcycle and I found an empty seat in another vehicle, thus beginning an epic race between Chinese motorcycle and hitchhiking muzungu that I’m sure came down to the wire.
Arriving in Kampala I grabbed a motorcycle taxi to take me to dinner with Aaron from EarthWise Ventures. “Dinner at last” I thought “before crashing immediately in a cool, non-mosquito infested room”. But briefly at least, my plans were frustrated again when going up a rather large hill, the motorcycle sputtered, clicked and ran out of gas. “No problem” said the driver, lowering the bike to its side. Giving it a good shake and a couple of kicks, he pulled the bike back up and revved the engine into gear. We made it to the nearest petrol station, and to our destination without any other hurdles.
Finally, on my last day in Kampala before boarding my bus, I visited Owino Market to check out the real Kampala. I’ve been to a lot of markets around the world, but this was among the craziest. My goals in the market included getting completely lost, buying a Ugandan flag, and picking up some unique Ugandan food. I only accomplished two of the three but I’m ok with it because it was really about the experience all along.