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Perils of Polly: Cars, trucks and boda-bodas, weaving all over the road

Posted: April 11, 2013 - 4:04pm  |  Updated: April 12, 2013 - 9:50am
Boda bodas versus the rental car. Who wins? This photo was taken out the front window of our rental car in Kampala.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
Boda bodas versus the rental car. Who wins? This photo was taken out the front window of our rental car in Kampala.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, Central and South America. Her perils continue in Africa.

The sun was setting as Mary Green and I, with our driver, Ali, headed from Entebbe toward Kampala. At first, the decently paved road, although busy, was still allowing traffic, and we were impressed by the rather large houses dotting the hillsides.

But as dusk settled in, so did the traffic. By traffic, we’re not just talking vehicles. Traffic is mostly bicycles, boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis), pedestrians, and, of course, cars, trucks, and minivans. The trucks all belch diesel smoke, and the minivans, which are taxis in disguise, weave through traffic like they own the road. The boda-bodas squeeze between everything else.

As we crawled along at 2 mph, the stench invaded our senses and our eyes began to water. The road was lined with markets so throngs of people zigzagged across the street in front of us in the darkness; black people, in the dark, wearing dark clothes. Not a good combination! The confusion was the worst I’d been in all across the world, although I’ve never been to India and I hear it’s similar. I glanced back at Mary. “I am SO glad I’m not driving!”

“So am I! I’d make you pull over!”

As the vehicles and people darted this way and that, I began laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I was excited to be experiencing the chaos of Kampala. But after two hours, it began to wear thin. When would we get anywhere? Finally we pulled up to the Grand Imperial Hotel. We took our cash set aside in a baggie for exchanging and walked cautiously to the money exchanger. We found out later we should have exchanged at the airport as it was probably an hour extra in travel for what? One or two dollars? We also found out later that Uganda takes American money. We didn’t need to exchange nearly as much as we did. Oh well. The joys of independent travel.

Ali finally pulled into Silver Springs Hotel and we experienced the only air conditioning we would get in all of Uganda. We asked Ali where he was going to sleep. He shrugged. We still don’t know. He probably slept in the car to guard it, as he said parked cars will get stripped in less than an hour.

The next morning we had to get our $500 apiece gorilla tracking permits at the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The traffic was just as bad except now we could see it. We stopped at a store, picked up some food, and finally headed out of town toward Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The road was paved so we zipped along quickly except for dodging the throngs of pedestrians and bicycles that lined the highway. I didn’t know Uganda had so many people!

Poor Ali. He was with two women who had no appetite in the heat. We didn’t stop to eat “lunch” until after 4, when we got to Mbarara. We had a decision to make over lunch: Stay here for the night and take the shorter northern route of gravel roads to Bwindi, or continue down on paved roads to Kabale, spend the night there and take the southern and longer gravel roads from there. To me it was a no-brainer, but Ali, who had been to Kabale but never Bwindi, wanted to take that route. Looking at a map, it just didn’t make sense to me, and the Bradt Guide suggested my route was easier and shorter.

Realizing we wouldn’t get to Kabale until after dark, Ali finally acquiesced to staying in Mbarara. We left the restaurant and went out to the car. When I opened the door I screamed! Yikes! Cockroaches tumbled from the seat and floorboard onto the ground! “I’m not getting into that car!”

Ali chuckled. “All cars in Uganda have cockroaches.”

I didn’t, and still don’t, believe it.

Realizing we had no other option, Mary and I climbed cautiously into the creepy crawly car, then headed to a “hotel.” We climbed up a dark and dusty set of stairs to a room that had no toilet seat. Food trays were set in the hallway, and one bed had no mosquito net. We shuddered and left. The second one was only slightly better, but it, too, had roaches scurrying out of our presence. We asked the owner to spray, and he did. We tucked our mosquito nets into the mattress for protection not just from mosquitoes.

The next day we went straight to a store to buy roach spray, and Ali sprayed down the car. Then we began our odyssey into dust. We headed out on a beautiful gravel road carved into the side of the mountain that miraculously had no traffic and even very few pedestrians. After about 10 miles we figured out why: the bridge was out. No sign. Just a truck parked in front of it. It’d been out for months, some people told us. Too bad no one bothered to put up a sign at the beginning of the road. Africa!

After a circuitous ride through more dust and heat, we finally arrived at Bwindi. Our first question was where to stay. They had spots for tents, but with sweat pouring down my head, I wasn’t too interested in camping. Nor did I want to spend another night like the last one. It looked like we were going to have to dish out more money than I had expected to stay in reasonable lodging.

We went with Bwindi Community Rest Camp, where we stayed in a tented structure with meals provided. The price was a steep $100 per night for its value, but at least some of the money went to help the locals — at least that’s what a Peace Corps volunteer told us.

While we wandered the shops and watched some local dancing, we were approached by a young girl. “I have no parents. Will you sponsor me?”

Mary and I looked at each other. Had we heard right? This is where we began to learn about the Ugandan culture: the men take multiple wives, send their children to get white “sponsors” and their women into the fields to work, while they drink up any income that results. That part of African culture, with its scamming and dishonesty, began to leave a nasty aftertaste.

Although steamy hot, we slept relatively well that night and woke up to my next greatest fear: would I really be physically able to climb a mountain and track gorillas?


Look for more of Polly’s perils on next week’s Recreation page.

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