Friday, April 19, 2013

Travel Day

I have been traveling a lot lately to see & help run malaria-related activities which Volunteers are running in their sites around the country.  As the guy the staff likes call the malaria coordinator (but doesn't like to pay for this position), I'm the point-man for all of these events.  This, in combination with my primary service being with spraying insides of homes in 10 districts (10%) of Uganda and helping co-create a software to judge the capacity of these districts makes me busier than I think I was even as a 70 hour-a-week bartender and psychology lab assistant.

Some of these travels are better than others; traveling to the North has of late become quite the experience, with the coming of rains and the unbelievably poor road systems on which it falls. Thus begins yesterday's events:

I had booked a bus ticket for 3:00pm on a bus that usually (quite miraculously) holds a very tight schedule.  I was in Kitgum, traveling down to Gulu where I currently live.  This journey on a good day should take something like 2 hours.  This was good, as I was not inclined to being on the road I didn't know well at night, especially considering I was hoping to travel the next day (today) across the country to another PCV's site.

The bus ended up leaving rather late, at just before 4:00pm.  Several riders were standing, despite having bought seats earlier in the day (which the company sold multiple times, like an airline, but without the ability to push people off).  After being on the road for around 25 minutes, the bus turns into a side street, three-points, and heads back in the opposite direction.  No one on the bus even bats an eye.  I start looking around and asking, and it isn't that I am not "in the know," its just that everyone assumes we are going back the way we came for a reason.  Hm.  I ask around, and apparently the bus has gotten a call that the roads in this direction are very bad (it rained earlier in the day), and that they are going to try and different route.

Thus, we leave Kitgum town (again) at just after 5:00pm, and begin the journey again.  35 or 40 minutes in, we hit our first mud road.  We twist, turn, and eventually skate across the 85 seat overfilled bus through the worst parts.  The bus cheers!  We are all convinced we've made it through the worst of it, and shake hands in congratulations of our achievements.  I even did a little dance, much to the delight of the old men and women of the bus.

But then 20 minutes later we hit a T in the road, with both left and right directions looking more appropriate for a whale shark than a bus.  The driver stops completely and gets out to see how firm the road is.  He slips and falls.  This is not a good sign; I look at my clock and see that it is now after 6:00, and the sun is beginning to set on the horizon in front of us.  Because of how slow we've been traveling, we've still not even made it half way to Gulu, yet have managed to get far enough away from, well, everything to be convinced of nothing being present besides huts for a 6 mile radius.

So we try the road.  Women shake their heads as we turn onto the road, with the back of the bus started to lose traction almost immediately.  But the driver regains control, and slowly (about 3mph) advances down the road for about 20-25 minutes.  It is inevitable, though, as we look and see the road getting worse instead of better, that this was an attempt doomed from the beginning.  Eventually the back of the bus slides heavily to one side, falling down the slope, causing the driver to over-react and lose control of the bus completely.  The back end slams (surprisingly hard considering our minuscule speed) into the burm, and the bus teeters precariously, to the point where people are instructed to stand on one side of the bus to prevent it from tipping (all I can think about at this point is my "High side is the dry side!" screams while raft-guiding in Charlotte).  And then we just stop.  

Everyone gets off the bus, and oddly enough all of us are still quite optimistic.  All of the men get in the back (in the mud) and start to push as the tires spin, and we're able to move the bus about 20 feet.  This is encouraging; if we can only get the bus out of the down slope of the burm, we might can make this work.  The next push, though, the wheel starts a heavy click-click noise, and we suddenly realize how twisted the back axle has become  with the uneven terrain.  In reverse, the wheel gets locked and even throw's the bus up in the air a bit, with impressive force.  This bus, it is now clear, is going nowhere.

By this point its reaching 7, and people are starting to get worried.  Acholi land is still known by people even in Uganda as a place you don't want to be stranded in.  Other's are completely unbothered, and rather more interested in making jokes and telling people "This is Uganda, eh?! This is Uganda!!"  These people are either close enough to their desired destination where they can walk, or more likely, they're hammered drunk.  

A couple of people decide they are going to walk to the nearest center and see if there are bodas (Motorcycles) to get us to the nearest town.  Sounds good.  We walk for about a mile, and reach the center at 8pm.  This center is obviously filled to the brim, and it becomes clear that we are not the only bus that has tried and failed on this road.  As it turns out, every single bus that has tried to make the journey on this day has gotten stuck, save for one: the bus that I later got on to return.  

It is also quite clear that this is not a safe place to be with a computer, ipod touch, and more generally white skin.  People have been drinking since noon...and its well past that now.  With the increase of people on their grounds, drunkards have responded vigorously by seemingly drinking more and being more absurd.  I need to get out of here, I decide, and start looking for how to make that happen.

But the road is still crap.  Talking to motorcycle taxis, even at 10x the price, they are unwilling to travel to the next center 10k away, much less Gulu some 80k further.  I start to become discouraged---and start asking locals who seem sober if I can stay with them in the night, if it comes to it.  As I am doing this, two men walk up to me and ask me what I've found out--they are travelers as well, don't know the local language, and ready to get out of here.  They hear that the nearest center is 10k away, and their eyes light up (not my reaction).  "Let's walk!" they say.  As they offer this option, the generator is powered up and blasting music of "Gasolina Gasolina" resounds through the center.  It's about 8:30pm, reaching to 9.  "Where are you guys from?"  --"Kaabong" (from Karamoja).  "You fellas are Karamajong, eh?" ---"We are.  You come, we can walk for days!"  (Karamoja is the land PC is not allowed to visit or travel to in Uganda.  Everyone in Uganda fears the Karamoja and tells fairy-tell stories about how they rape their women, steal any cow they see, and pillage for a profession.  This certainly could be argued was their lifestyle years back.)  But they seem sincere, if only a bit too eager to go walking with me.  "Alright, lets do it."  I separate my money into 3 different places, the majority of which I put inside of my socks.  This should be fun.

For 2 hours my two friends (Saddam---named after Saddam Hussein, and Mike) talk to me about their life.  One turns out to be a LCIII--a local mid-level politician.  The other is a businessman in K-ja, and owns a lodge just outside of K-ja's only real tourist attraction, Kidepo National Park.  I talk to them about stars, satellites, and shooting stars.  They talk about how these stars were used in raids, back in the war, and for the warriors to know when was the best time to attack.  They also talk about how shooting stars would forecast where the attack would come from the following day, which they followed religiously.  

Ultimately, my fears (while, I would argue, were understandable) were completely unrealized.  A couple of times, a lone bicyclist would approach us without warning.  Because of the dark, it was nearly impossible to seem them in advance.  The LCIII Mike would call out to Saddam and I (who didn't have his night-time seeing ability) and we'd jump off the road like it was a mack truck coming, not a 13-year old kid with a jerrican of water.  Each time we laughed at each other as if we individually knew the object approaching couldn't actually hurt us...and yet still every time we jumped.

As we walked, we began to encroach upon what we thought had to of been "the town" which we were aiming for, because we saw light.  As it turns out, these were simple huts stationed all around who had lit fires in their front yard, seemingly for no reason in the middle of the night.  What they were actually doing was attracting the white ants, ants with wings that flew around during the beginning of every rainy season in the East and North of Uganda.  These ants are caught by running & jumping kids as they draw nearer to the fire where their wings are plucked and they are held hostage for frying the next day.  Don't knock it till you try it; a handful of white ants provides much needed protein and a pretty solid taste to back it up.  

Anyway, after a couple of hours we happened upon a white truck (surprise surprise, it was an NGO truck) which stopped.  Yes they did have three extra spaces in their truck, and sure, they were going to Gulu.  We high-fived each other and jumped in, our luck having changed form a 7 hour walk in the middle of a night to a comfortable ride in the backseat of a truck.

It was an experience I both cannot and also partially don't want to write too much about; it is one of a hundred different times in the country when I've felt so amazingly happy and blessed to of been able to come and enjoy this place.  Uganda, you're awesome.

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