Sunday, September 11, 2005
"Golly," I thought as I glanced around the Johannesburg airport departures area. "There sure are a lot of white people here."
I was not staying in South Africa—I was in transit to Namibia—but the contrast to East Africa was stunning. Just yesterday, I'd hopped helmetless on the back of boda-bodas, which had zipped me through the diesel-choked roundabouts of Kampala. Now I was tempted from all sides by gourmet coffees, $6 sandwiches that had actual lettuce on them, and bathrooms where the taps emitted hot water.
Herr Marlboro had driven me to Masindi the morning after the hippo had charged us. We’d checked our e-mail accounts, eaten an English breakfast at Traveller’s Café, and returned all the beer and soda bottles left by the endless stream of guests that came to Murchison Falls. He’d left me at the minibus taxi to Kampala. He was returning to the main Murchison gate where we’d left workers laying stone onto the base of the decorative faux-elephant-tusk gateway. They’d hadn’t even said good-bye—they were used to me coming and going to Kampala. Celsius had reacted the same, with a smile and a shrug. I was always leaving, but I always came back.
Not this time, but I didn’t have the heart to say so.
After a 40-minute wait, the minibus was full and we pulled out of the taxi park. I scanned the dusty, crowded roads of Masindi for the white DED Toyota pick-up or for a white, blond man but they were gone.
I’d read and heard dire warnings about traveling in minibus taxis—or “matatus” in Swahili—in Uganda. The majority of minibus drivers I’d encountered, however, had been polite (if aggressive) and safe-enough drivers.
Not this time. The driver took the 40-kilometer dirt road out of Masindi at frightening speeds. I don’t know how fast we were going because the speedometer didn’t work. Neither did the fuel gauge, the front seatbelts, or the front passenger door—which was slightly charred and opened only from the outside. And it was raining.
We reached meat-on-a-stick junction, where we turned off to Kampala after a full-on assault by eager meat-on-a-stick sellers. I was relieved to be off of the dirt road, but now the driver felt the need to drive even faster. The passengers all shifted nervously and exchanged glances. Not only the mzungu was nervous.
There are several police speed traps on the Kampala road, and the driver always managed to slow down just in time. He’d also pull his non-working seatbelt across over his shoulder and hold it in place with one hand. He always muttered to the passenger in the front seat to do the same. Each time, the passenger looked apprehensive but followed orders. Uganda has a mandatory seatbelt law.
Whenever we’d hit a pothole—and there are many on the Kampala road but still fewer than in Jersey City—the driver would veer to the far right and then speed all the way to the left without lifting his foot off the gas.
About 40 minutes outside of Kampala, we ran out of fuel. It was still raining. The driver got out and disappeared, carrying with him an empty yellow plastic vegetable oil jug.
A second minibus pulled over. Anyone who could fit jumped ship, but I had too much luggage. Those of us left behind sat bored in the rain. Everyone had already read my newspaper that I’d bought in Masindi.
The front seat passenger read all the driver’s personal papers and then dug around in the glove compartment for a while.
I was wondering when to cut my losses and flag down another minibus when the driver reappeared with the vegetable oil jug full of fuel.
Even after he used an empty water bottle to tip fuel into the tank, the minibus did not start. The driver pumped the accelerator and ground the starter. Finally, it grumbled to life. We drove through the rain to Kampala.
I’d enjoyed living in Uganda. It was fun to improvise—making a shower curtain at H.M.’s place using my dollar-store rain poncho and some clothespins, faking both successful and unsuccessful baked goods recipes using whatever local goods were available and surprising park workers with them, learning to cope with washing laundry in a plastic bin, and boiling nasty old dish sponges for re-use—and I’d miss the smell of charcoal in the countryside (but not the diesel in the city). I’d gotten used to the ever-present red-brick color that permanently lived on my shoes, evidence that Kampala is not built merely on seven hills, but on seven muddy hills.
But in spite of my love for Uganda, I was quite looking forwarding to using a washing machine.