Friday, January 13, 2012

UGANDA DISPATCH #1: Entebbe to Matuwa

The mystery surrounding our arrival in Entebbe was underlined by a thick, peculiar fog. 

When the plane door opened Emily and I were greeted by a warm tropical air. Runway lights were dulled by the humidity and, at 2:30 in the morning, the international gateway to Uganda was eerily quiet. After clearing customs we were greeted by two sleepy Ugandan drivers holding signs with our names. They quickly whisked us away to a hotel somewhere in the urban center. We climbed under a mosquito net and had a brief nap before waking a few hours later. By morning our drivers had vanished. We asked the hotel’s proprietor where they might be, but a language barrier/confusion kept us from understanding where they were. We simply shrugged our shoulders and passed the time by packing up our belongings and having a basic meal of egg and coffee at the hotel.  With mug in hand, I left the table to stretch my legs. The drivers were back and were leaning against the car. “We’re waiting for you”, one said. I chugged my cup and squeezed into the backseat. After traveling for 24+ hours, we still had another 8-9 hours to go before reaching our final destination, the village of Matuwa, somewhere deep in the mountains near the Kenyan border. 

Our drivers, Ema and Sula, wasted no time while on the road. They drove as fast as they could through Entebbe and on to the capital, Kampala. Kampala was teeming with people. Men, women and children, wearing vibrant reds, yellows and blues, shared the road with bicycles, mopeds and motorcars. I constantly worried that Ema would clip the handlebar of someone’s bike or the elbow of a wandering child, but thankfully, amazingly, that never happened (though I swear he came within inches, within millimeters). My wide eyes scanned this new land and everyone, it seemed, stared back at me. Though white people aren’t too uncommon, we, naturally, seemed to stick out more than the rest of the population. 

Twice our car stopped at places swarming with roadside vendors. When we did, our vehicle was surrounded by people shoving cooked bananas and sticks with chicken in our faces. The drivers rolled our (rear) windows up while they negotiated in the front seat. Eventually some deal was made, they got their chicken, and we sped off again. I never really knew what was going on.

Our car came to a stop at Jinja, a town located on the edge of Lake Victoria. For some reason Jinja is filled with Western ex-pats; Germans, Brits, Americans, Scandinavians, etc. Known throughout Africa (and the world?) as being a hotspot for white water rafting (maybe this is why Westerns come/live here?), it is also the source of the Nile. We pulled up alongside a Western-looking café. Our driver instructed us to get out of the car and said “here is a good place to eat” (I guess he wanted to spare us from the chicken on a stick). I wasn’t entirely hungry, but I didn’t know when the next available chance to eat might be and I also wanted to get on a new schedule. My stomach had been cramped since the morning so I opted for a giant bottle of Bells; a highly touted Ugandan beer. I chugged the cold bottle with a smile and mopped my wet brow. I cracked my neck and loosened the button on my shirt. Then I ordered a second to wash down the rest of my chicken sandwich. Now feeling a bit better, I stumbled around the restaurant and then leaned against the front door to watch the world go by. I glanced to the right and noticed my drivers waiting on a bench, “we must get going, we still have a very long journey.” Feeling a little embarrassed and inconsiderate I quickly grabbed Emily, polished off the rest of my Bells and we proceeded on our adventure.

After another few hours of driving NASCAR-like ‘round slower cars and villagers alike we arrived at Mbale, the closest “main” city to where we would be staying. Here the drivers filled our car with a giant jug of water, bread, tea, toilet paper and other miscellaneous (which we learned later was for us). Sula hopped out and told us this was as far as he was going. Then we were off again. Our car ventured off a paved road and then began ascending a hill that seemed to go on for miles and mile. The dirt path (a dare say road) was filled with potholes and speed-bump like things so the going was tough and slow. In fact, the 25 mile trek from Mbale to our village takes 60-90 minutes! Higher into the sky we drove, past men herding goats, young girls balancing bushels of firewood atop their heads, and babies tightly clenching chickens and dragging yellow plastic jugs filled with water twice their size.

FINALLY we arrived at the lush green village of Matuwa. Tucked deep within a fertile range of steep, rolling hills, Matuwa was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. It was cooler here, but still quite warm. Some villagers wore earth toned pants and shirts while others donned old, dirty tweed sports coats. I was amazed at how well everyone was dressed, despite how agrarian the community was. They all looked like gentlemen farmers. The women, also dressed smart, wore dresses or lose fitting pants. Many, from both sexes and all ages, clutched hoes and machetes. Proprietors on the side of the dusty road sold beef, grilled corn, fried bananas and warm beer. It soon dawned on me that I was exhausted. I had traveled from the most powerful city in the world to a dusty, albeit beautiful, hamlet somewhere deep within Africa’s interior. 

I was in another world. Tomorrow I’d run.

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