Saturday, May 1, 2010

There's always room

Last weekend I went to a friend's site in a neighboring district. One of the new volunteers moved into the unit attached to hers and I wanted to welcome her to the "neighborhood" and see a good friend at the same time. We drank some excellent red wine (only 16,000= in Kampala!), watched Zodiac, ate some delicious guacamole and chapati "burritos" and had a great time. Originally this was supposed to be a welcome party-weekend, but those plans were postponed before they got off the ground and I still wanted to say hi.

Even though my friend lives pretty close, we rarely see each other. It's not that we're not that good of friends (she's probably one of my closest friends out here). It's not that she lives too far away (she's about 40 kilometers from me - 20-ish miles). It's to do with the transportation. That 40 kilometer journey in the states would probably take about a half hour in an air conditioned, cushioned car with plenty of leg room. Not so in Uganda.

In Uganda, one rarely hears "There's no more space!" or "We're all full here!" Personal space is not something that Ugandans take into account when traveling. I've only heard "I'd give you a ride, but there's no more room" once, and that was from a white woman transporting other white people. And, I'm afraid to admit it, but I was a little uncomfortable with that statement. What do you mean there's no more space? We're in Uganda! There's always more space. But alas, she was transporting some newly arrived Danish visitors and probably didn't want to overwhelm them too much during their first week by inviting an sweaty, un-ironed, hasn't-washed-her-hair-in-3-days Peace Corps volunteer. (I really do help to improve America's image overseas...!)

So walking down to the Kyotera/Mbrara highway intersection in search of a ride to my friend's site I was fully prepared to sit squished in a back seat with three other people and a chicken or in the front passenger seat with a baby on my lap and the mother squeezed between me and the driver, her hips helping to shift. That's how it works here. I'm starting to realize that if I do have to take a car, and not a matatu, I'll be uncomfortable. And after 8 months in Uganda, I'm ok with it. It's a necessary evil. It happens.

Amazingly I found quickly found a car (typically seating 4 - the driver, passenger and two in the back - in the States) and after throwing my backpack in the boot and arguing with the driver over the price (No I will not pay 4,000 shillings! I know the price! It's 3,000! No? Ok, I'm leaving. No, I'm leaving. Open the boot. What? We go for 3,000? Ok), I settled myself in the back seat. When I was quickly joined by three other passengers in my row and one in the front seat I expected to hit the road. But no. The driver had other ideas. Why drive all those 40 kilometers with only 5 passengers when you can make the same journey with more?! There are back-country roads he can take to avoid the police checkpoints, so why not?

We finally left after two more people squeezed themselves into the car. (occupant count = 7). While this was a little more than I'm used to, I figured that the short 40 kilometer journey wouldn't be too bad. We might not even have to avoid the police and keep on the tarmac.

Oh how naive I was. (Mistake 1)

We stopped two more times to pick up more passengers.

At the first stop, we picked up two passengers, one of which was a very LARGE woman. When I saw her I assumed that she would sit in the front since there was only one, rather thin, person in the front passenger seat. (Mistake 2) But no. Smiling, the driver walked around to the driver's side rear door, opened it and ushered her inside. And she squeezed herself right down on my right hip. That's ok. I don't really need that ilium anyway. Did I mention how fat she was? One of the fattest Ugandans I've seen here. On. My. Lap.

My third mistake? I convinced myself that she would get out soon. Surely this woman couldn't be going the whole way. Surely.

We stopped a second time to add another person bringing our count to ten passengers. Yes, you read that right. Ten people in a car made for, at the most, 5: driver, front passenger and three in the back - but let's not kid ourselves. Most Americans wouldn't put three full grown adults in the back seat. It's just not done.

Mistake number 4: I assumed some of these people MUST BE GETTING OUT SOON. *laughs at self* Yeah, right.

When we stopped a third time to let three people in the car, I had enough. The man sitting next to the door, however had a different idea. He refused to move. "Extend!" I said. Repeatedly. But did he extend? No. He smiled at me. After pushing him and hitting his leg for what must have been three minutes, he finally managed to fall out of the car and I escaped. The driver, recognizing that I was one angry passenger didn't say a word to me. He opened the boot and I retrieved my bag. He didn't ask demand that I pay him for the ride from hell. He didn't even look at me.

As the car was pulling away (final passenger count: 11), I flagged down a matatu and settled myself in the half-empty vehicle for the remainder of my journey.

The ride back to town the next day was almost as bad as the drive down. Walking 15 minutes to the highway from my friend's small village, I waited with several very friendly boda boda drivers and generally unemployed men who have always wanted a Muzungu "wife". Luckily a matatu arrived quickly and I boarded. The drive back started fairly uneventfully as the matatu wasn't terribly full.

We stopped several times in Kalisizo, however to pick up more passengers (and lots of luggage and a chicken), bringing the final passenger count in the matatu to 23. The "official" passenger limit for matatus is 14 passengers. The school term had just ended and many of those riding to town with me that particular day were students leaving boarding school with trunks, luggage, and various other space-taking items.

I somehow managed to make it to town with relatively little discomfort (no fat lady in my lap this time) and have since resolved to only take matatus to my friend's site in the future.

On another note. There is a jigger in my foot. A jigger is some sort of insect that lives in the mud and dirt and either burrows into your skin and lays an egg sack there or lays eggs in the soil, which then somehow make it into your skin. Either way it's not comfortable. And tomorrow I'm meeting with a Ugandan friend to dig it out. With a safety pin. Wish me luck.

Pre-Op jigger:

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