Saturday, August 13, 2005

Landlocked in Paraa

I've been in Murchison Falls National Park for a few days now, but getting here was, as always, a bit of an endeavor.

On Saturday morning, I sat in a long-distance minibus in Kampala's "New Taxi Park."

"Who buys this stuff?" I wondered as sellers shoved all kinds of things through the windows in attempts to entice passengers to buy their wares. I found myself viewing-but not desiring-cheap watches, flip-flops, socks, cookies, pens, and charred meat-on-a-stick.

As a foreigner, I was spared the brunt of the onslaught, but water sellers and newspaper boys eagerly flashed their wares at me.

Minibuses, like nearly all public transport in East Africa, leave "when full." This particular minibus to Masindi took about 40 minutes to fill. We all buckled our seatbelts and began the 3-hour journey.

Herr Marlboro was picking me up in Masindi since he had to be there anyway to pick up cement and a 3-meter plastic pipe. I was lucky this time-on my last trip, I had to hitch a ride from MFNP to Masindi with a Uganda Wildlife Authority pick-up truck on official business. H.M. cannot, unfortunately, jump up and drive to Masindi any time Madame says "boo." He uses an official car and is actually in Uganda to work. But we usually manage to coordinate my arrivals and departures.

On my last trip, I left unexpectedly after becoming frustrated with trying to work at H.M.'s house. Murchison Falls is a tourist destination and lots of people come to visit. I'd found my workspace crawling with pleasant visitors and had fled to Kampala to get some work done.

I had traveled with the security warden and a driver. In addition, there were assorted park workers looking for a lift, including one with a pedal-operated Singer sewing machine. But the primary purpose of the voyage was not to transport H.M's Madame or a broken sewing machine. We carried six poachers and a ranger with a semi-automatic rifle. The poachers were going to jail in Masindi, where they would be probably be forced to work for 30-90 days depending on their sentences.

We left Paraa (the park headquarters as well as the site of H.M.'s residence) with dozens of people packed onto the back of the green truck. I was lucky enough to be inside the cab.

"It is land-locked," offered the warden as an explanation for the crowd. I knew this already. No transport goes empty to Masindi, and H.M. and I always had passengers when we went.

We drove to the park gate, where another park worker flagged us down.

"I need a Daily Monitor," he explained, hopping onto the already-crowded pick-up bed. The Daily Monitor is one of two legitimate Ugandan newspapers. The third, Red Pepper, is an entertaining tabloid that just makes up stories when it lacks interesting headlines.

Eventually, we got to the Masindi-region-maintained stretch of dirt road that was shaped like an upside-down V. This is scary to drive when it's dry, but downright perilous when wet. It had rained the night before.

The driver crawled along slowly, passing by a bogged tourist mini-van with an anxious driver. We stopped as soon as we got off the dangerous part of the road, and the driver and warden got out. They motioned for all the men on the back to follow (the sewing machine stayed on-board). The guard motioned the poachers down as well.

There were two (what is the polite word?) massively fat American or European tourists inside the mini-van, while the scrawny Ugandan driver sat behind the wheel. The sight of a dozen Africans-including six in rags and one with an AK-4--descending on the mini-van was too much for the tourists. They wound up the windows, locked the doors, and refused to move.

vehicle in mud

The warden and the driver directed, while the rest got to work. The soldier also sat aside, keeping alert in case the poachers decided that now was the time to disappear into the bush. The poachers did not even try. Digging a tourist mini-van out of the mud at gunpoint seemed a sensible alternative to being shot in the back for fishing in the wrong park of the lake.

The poachers and the park workers dug and pushed, while the mini-van driver pushed the accelerator. This resulted only in spinning wheels and a deeper rut.

There was a break while the Ugandans considered the situation. Someone said something, and everyone gathered brush to throw under the tires.

This helped a little, but the mini-van still refused to budge. People sighed, rested a minute, then started pushing and digging. All of the men-except the warden and the guard-leaned on the mini-van. It nearly moved but then sank back into the mud.

Now I could see the warden leaning into the van's window, talking to the tourists. And they finally emerged in all their heavy glory. It was quite a contrast to see the large white couple against a backdrop of skinny, sweating African men, all working for the betterment of the tourists and receiving only fear as thanks.

vehicle in mud

The workers and poachers pushed again, in unison, and finally, the little mini-van's wheels gripped the mud and the van slid back onto the road.

Laughing, the warden and driver got back into the cab with me.

"We couldn't just leave them there," explained the warden.

The poachers and guard and workers and man needing a newspaper climbed back onto the pick-up truck. The guard nudged the poachers back into their submissive squats in the middle. The driver started the engine, and we continued to Masindi, where I caught the mini-bus to Kampala and comic-book productivity.

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