So this is my third night in Uganda already—I’ll try to recap what I’ve been up to since I left Germany. After an uproarious 4am taxi ride Sunday morning to the Stuttgart airport, featuring a wild-eyed German aging-hippie driver with a penchant for X-rated jokes, I flew into Amsterdam to catch my connection to Entebbe, the site of the main airport for Uganda some ways outside the capital, Kampala. For some reason, unlike for virtually every other flight I could see, Amsterdam airport did not provide a normal gate with rows of seats for the flight to Uganda. Instead the several hundred passengers had to queue up for about two hours and go through yet another x-ray security checkpoint—again, unique to the Uganda flight. This puzzling circumstance, which I suppose was the Dutch way of easing
us gradually into the Third World experience, gave me the chance to meet some of the other folks on the flight. They looked to be about half Ugandans, a third Americans, and the remainder Brits, Aussies, South Africans, and the like. A large number of the Americans were missionaries armed with cheery smiles and very modest clothing. I befriended a group of large-animal veterinary students from North Dakota, several of whom had never left the upper Midwest before, who were embarking on a five-week trip roaming around Uganda ministering to livestock and wild animals alike as training for treating the steer and horses back home. On the plane I sat next to Monika, a charming German woman a couple years my senior who had been through Johns Hopkins SAIS, speaks seven languages, and now works at a German development company in Uganda’s extremely remote northeastern Karamojong region, where my guidebook says human child sacrifice is still common. We had a really enjoyable flight together, although she was bummed at missing the big AC/DC concert in Stuttgart that night, which the rest of her family was jubilantly attending. The best part of the flight for me may have been gaping out the window like a little kid at the empty vastness of the Sahara desert, which morphed rapidly into the equally unfathomable denseness of the South Sudanese jungle—which though night had fallen was totally bereft of electrical light. Heart of darkness for real.
Arriving in Entebbe, right smack on the Equator, I was instantly struck by the humidity, though it was a cool night. I tagged along with Monika and her Indo-British colleague Saliyah as her exuberant Ugandan personal driver Max met us outside the terminal and whisked us away to Kampala. The drive was a surreal thirty-five minutes along an airport access road that seemed unbelievably crowded for 10pm on a Sunday night. While we sang along to music videos blaring the best of the 1980s pop charts on the two TVs in our car (think James Brown “Living in America”), Max singing along loudest of all, we weaved in and out of a steady stream of cars, trucks, minibuses, bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians—all much slower than Max, who by virtue of carrying passengers was on a Blues Brothers-esque mission from God. The disorientation caused by our erratic maneuvers, thrillingly high speed, and the constant horn honking all around us was compounded by the fact that Ugandans, as British colonials until 1962, drive on the left. If I were in charge of a country, this is how people would drive! We passed by hundreds of people on our ride in, all sort of strolling or loitering on the side of the road with, it seemed, nothing in particular to do—but what really struck me was the dusty, smoggy air outside and the dilapidated shacks that lined the route, which smacked of really grinding poverty, more striking even than what I’d seen in the slums of Oaxaca or Istanbul. Finally we reached Kampala, and after gleaning many helpful tips about getting around the city from the old hands Monika and Saliyah, I arrived at the Golf Course Hotel and crashed almost immediately.
I woke up the next day (Monday) at 1pm, having caught up on some sorely needed sleep. I was able to get my first look at the hotel and environs. The place is pretty sweet. Complete with an Olympic-size pool, helipad, twelfth-story revolving restaurant-tower, immediate access to the Kampala Golf Club, and a complimentary bott
le of water, I figure it’s not a bad way to get acclimated to a new and sometimes bewildering part of the world. Some idiosyncrasies exist, including my huge, gorgeous bathroom where nothing works exactly right, and the state of the art business center where internet only connects about a third of the time. So Monday afternoon I ventured out into downtown Kampala to get some breakfast (which I had slept through) and some internet access to send some emails (since the hotel’s was down and my blackberry was not cooperating either). Kampala, which derives from the word “impala,” the local Luganda-language word for “full-size Chevy sedan,” is a frenetic, chaotic city of palm trees, red dust, high-rises, shacks, and lots and lots of motorbikes and cars driving fast, unpredictably, and seemingly with intent to kill or at least maim anything that gets in the way. I walked past the lively but orderly government buildings and settled on Mateo’s Pizza, where I got a delicious cheese pizza and a coke. This made me the only person eating anything in the packed restaurant—everyone else had his undivided attention on the Denmark-Netherlands soccer game, which featured a humiliating own-goal by the Danish defender. Eventually, I tried several internet cafes before finding one that didn’t black out right as I was trying to send an important email to the US Embassy in Kampala.
Mission accomplished, I returned to the hotel and headed over to the gym down the block in a shopping mall, free to all Golf Course Hotel guests. I was not there 10 minutes before I heard the guy behind me exclaim, “There’s no way this is 20 pounds!” whereupon I turned around and explained to the ignorant American how to convert from kilograms. Abraar (the other American) and I began to start up an awkward guys-in-the-gym conversation which immediately turned a lot more exciting when it became clear that we are both currently in the same year at Yale. In fact, half of the other patrons of the gym at the moment were Yale stud
ents, and the Bulldogs in Kampala program of 10 Yale undergraduates, it turns out, is housed only a couple blocks away. This revelation completely blew my mind. We exchanged numbers and agreed to get together that night to watch some soccer at the Yale group’s favorite Ugandan-Irish pub, Bubbles O’Leary’s. In the meantime, I prepped for my Tuesday meetings with AFRICOM officials over dinner at the hotel (A full steak dinner with a chocolate milkshake for 21,000 Ugandan Shillings—the equivalent of less than $10 American). Then I headed out to Bubbles to meet most of the rest of the Yale kids, a personable and very friendly bunch. We had a good time rooting for Italy as they recounted to me their experiences and lessons learned over their past two weeks in Uganda.
I had a sleepless night, probably from getting up so late the day before, and only managed 3 hours of sleep before my meetings at the US Embassy today (Tuesday). One cup of strong, terrible Ugandan coffee got me good to go and I headed over to the American mission. I had something of a scare when my cab driver abandoned the simple but crowded route to the Embassy and instead took me through an unbelievably impoverished part of town that did not have paved roads (nor much in the way of roads at all) and looked like the Bring Out Your Dead scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Interestingly, that part of town is where the Ugandan Police Headquarters is located—tellingly symptomatic, perhaps, of their complete inefficacy and total lack of trust among the population here. My meetings with defense officers at the Embassy were immeasurably productive and have gotten me really excited about this research project.
Returning back by motorbike-taxi (or “boda-boda” in the local parlance—about 90 cents per ride) to avoid the zany maneuvers of the cab drivers, I must have made a strange sight as a white kid dressed in suit in tie among throngs of casually-dressed locals using the same mode of transport. I got back to the hotel, jumped in the pool, headed to the gym for a little, and then went off to grab dinner with the whole Yale group at Mamba’s Point, a cool outdoor pizza place with a thatched-roof canopy. Afterwards, we headed back to Bubbles to watch North Korea attempt to play soccer while the Chinese citizens hired by the North Korean government to dress as North Koreans and root for the People’s Democratic Republic (for fear of actual North Koreans defecting) cheered desultorily as Brazil gave them a thumping. http://g.sports.yahoo.com/soccer/world-cup/blog/dirty-tackle/post/North-Korea-enlists-Chinese-fans-to-cheer-for-th?urn=sow,241154
I leave early tomorrow for a Safari in the Queen Elizabeth II National Park in western Uganda, so blogging will be a little slow until I return on Saturday. Thanks for reading and I promise to come back with some cool pictures! Here’s some for now.