Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Kampala, Uganda

Red dust covered my cheeks as the “private hire” taxi zoomed down the road. On the radio was the Christmas classic “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” recomposed into any easy listening version with synthesizers. Compared to the repressed feeling I had in Tanzania this was a relief. Women wearing tank tops and girls wearing the latest fashions revealing their knees. Cement shops and outdoor clothing stalls lined the street. The outside of the store looked as if it had been purchased by a specific company for advertising. One shop was entirely banana yellow and had the Bic Razor label. Another a powder blue with bubbles was for a washing detergent called “Omo”. Yes, advertising and consumerism seemed alive and well. The atmosphere was one of thriving progress. So many locals and expats everywhere walking to the markets and shops. The main roads are paved, but the sidewalk is dirt. There is meat to sell, but the butcher shop is in a wooden shack. Cars clogged the paved streets and motorcycles whizzed by on any free inch of flat land. Billboards for home loans, holidays to the Seychelles’s, and birth control lined the streets. Any free space in the median or on telephone poles was taken by the cell phone companies lifestyle campaigns proclaiming they have the best coverage and service for your life. Through my western filter I could already see the humor mixed with advertising slogans written in very literal English. One restaurant was called, “Good Restaurant & Bar” and another “Normal Food”. I could not help, but smile…it is kind of fun to be in another country where people speak English and have a rough idea of what is going on for a change.

Eventually I got to my hostel, the Red Chilli. It was your standard semi-clean backpacker hostel with travelers from around the world. On the first night after the Sunday BBQ the hip-hop and reggae thumped you could have mistaken it for a house party in Sacramento. So many Americans and Europeans it was like I had stumbled onto the mzunugu trail with one exception; most of them were doing really cool work. A group of dental students from New Jersey pulling teeth in rural villages, a young woman from Vancouver working as a teacher, two engineers from Vancouver Island building wells, and the list goes on. I was surprised to be in a hostel where at least ½ the people were doing some kind of long-term job or volunteer work. I met people while sharing community dinners. I had a fun time listening to their projects and where they had been. I put off saying much about what I was doing. At some point a person from their group would always ask. I would casually say, “I am going to the DR Congo” then would follow a long pause and awkward silence, “well good luck with that”. Others would immediately indicate a level of respect like wow you are going there you must be an old pro at this aid work stuff. All the time I was not really sure what to think. Do I really have any idea what I am getting myself into? No. Hope I make it.

I had come to Kampala with the lofty goal of attaining my visa for the DR Congo in less than 24 hrs, securing a plane ticket for the small bi-weekly commuter flight into Butemebo (Congo), try to find a hard drive to replace the one that had crashed, and squeeze in a business meeting with a non-profit I hope to do a job for. Lofty goals I tell you when you are trying to figure out where everything is and understand an entirely new place, luckily I was in a predominately English speaking country.

At 9am the next morning against my better judgment I climbed on back of a motor taxi (it was ½ the price of a car and 2x’s as fast) and headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo consulate. Worried the visa process may be hard I tried to have all of my ducks in a row. Passport, check. Letter of invitation, check. Money, check. Two passport photos, check. As I walked into the cement building with glassless windows I felt as if I had walked into a building in Africa in the 1940’s. A quick trip to the toilet revealed no electricity, no running water, a crumbling toilet, and of course no T.P. Wow if this was any indication of what the DR Congo was like I was in for a Haiti repeat. As I stepped to the up to the counter I was greeted in French. When I replied in English that I did not speak French and that I needed a visa they were quite skeptical. I tried the old I am from “Obama Land” joke and that seemed to entertain them.

After a few minutes of no one really telling me what the heck was going on they gave me a slip and told me to go to the bank and pay, meaning I had to go to the bank and directly deposit the cash into their account before I could begin the process. I said ok, but you have not told me anything about the visa. How much does it cost and how long is it for? I guess the idiotic and helpless American they told me like I should already have telepathically known that information and escorted me to another mototaxi who knew where the bank was. After 45 minutes at the bank I returned. I showed them the slip and asked to complete the paperwork. They told me to wait. Then when they asked for the photos I realized I had forgotten them at the hostel. It was already eleven and the woman told me you need this the same day? You have to be back before noon with the photos and you need to pay us $50 for helping you get your visa by the end of today. I asked if I could fill out the papers and they could start working on it while I got the photos. No. That is not possible. “Can you show me where it says I need to pay $50”, I asked? She said, “No it is just for us in the office for helping you out”. I said, “Well my boss will not let me pay for anything unless I can see it on paper and get a receipt”. She said, “That is not possible. We are helping you get your visa today for your flight tomorrow”. Ok, “I need a receipt or I cannot pay, my boss will think you are bribing me”. Try as I might there was no way around it. If I wanted on the bi-weekly flight that left the next morning, I had to pay. They knew they had me. The classic Mzungu squeeze. Slightly pissed off I left again to retrace my steps go get my photos and find some more money for the bribe. As I left the security guard who was also named Sarah scolded me for not bringing her sweets after my last return and to be sure I brought something for her this time.

And so the day progressed. By the end of the day I had spent $30 USD on motor taxis (a pretty penny in Kampala), shockingly I had found a Western Digital 1 terabyte HD (to replace the one that had crashed), kind of secured my plane ticket for the next day, purchased a motorcycle helmet for the DR Congo, and rescheduled my meeting with the non-profit for early the next morning.

After eating dinner and frantically separating out my gear (what I would leave in Kampala and what I would take) I could not wait to crawl under my mosquito net in my tent with a full on twin bed on a wooden frame inside. Without enough energy to even worry about what may lay ahead I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face knowing I was setting out for a real adventure.

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