Lakeshores, back roads and maniacally-laughing boda drivers

Posted: September 10, 2007 in Blog

There is little room for compromise in the competition between man and nature.

On the one hand, you have cities and suburbs where man dominates while trees stand meekly in their curbside cells.

Vast landscapes are leveled and then covered in homes, each allotted their two maples and three landscaping rocks.

Lakeshores, too, are negotiable, depending on the imperialism of a city. Think Toronto, where Front Street was named as such because it was once the city’s last line of defence against Lake Ontario, but is today a 10-minute walk from the shore.

On the other hand, you have rural areas where man lives at the whim of nature. Small towns carved into forests, houses that are the exception to the otherwise wild landscape.

An individual uses his own experiences to ground otherwise abstract theories.

For me, man’s penchant for shaping nature is manifested through Toronto’s development. While living there, I read history books about the area that included artists’ sketches depicting the landscape as it appeared before anything more than a village occupied the city site. It wasn’t the abundance of trees in the paintings that struck me, so much as the rolling hills and valleys that suggested a much more topographic setting than exists today.

To think that man not only cut down trees and diverted waterways, but also leveled hills and filled in valleys in building a city, to me, indicates the manner in which a population can grow completely independent of, and in some cases contrary to, the surrounding landscape.

Of all the rural settings I have seen that represent the opposite end of the spectrum, it is the back road where I grew up, leading from the beach to the elementary school I attended, that I think of in representing how our lives can carve through the surrounding environment.

It’s that road that comes to mind because, while walking that road to school when I was 10, I used to imagine what it would be like walking to school if the road wasn’t there. Take the road away, and I would have been walking through a dense forest with few signs of other development.

A couple years later, a friend and I were biking down a nearby road. We came across a dirt track that ran deep into the forest. We both lived in the area and knew the roads well, so whether or not to explore the track was not a question, so much as the instigation of a competition between us over who claimed to know the track best.

Soon enough we were completely, utterly, lost. The track disappeared and, being 12-year old boys, we got off our bikes and walked deeper into the forest instead of turning back.

“You know where we are?” my friend asked me. “Psh, yeah. Do you?” I answered, defensively.

“Yeah, just wanted to make sure you did too.”

Neither of us had any idea.

We emerged a few hours later, with darkness falling, at the edge of a farm that sat, oh, about 300 metres down the road from where we had entered the bush. Both us were sheepish, and each exchanged the keep-this-between-us looks of two young boys with illusions of reputations to protect.

But we both also had a newfound respect for the bush that lay beyond the roads we knew so well.

All this is to say that often the debate over man vs. nature becomes a debate over urban vs. rural. In cities, man rules. In rural areas, man lives at the whim of nature.

Not so, here.

Saturday, I was at the clinic picking up medication when it started raining. Really raining. I stood at the wide, open doorway of the clinic, watching the palm trees lean closer and closer to the ground as the rain began crossing horizontally in front of me. I hadn’t seen rain like this since I’d arrived, which says something given that there is at least 20 minutes of rain nearly every day.

After half an hour or so, it let up. Now’s my chance, I thought. Storms leave as quickly as they come around here, so it seemed like a safe bet that the rain would not return. I walked down to the main road and flagged down a boda-boda driver. We negotiated a price to take me home and I hopped on.

We don’t need to get too specific, but it might have been 20, okay 30, seconds into the trip home before the rain started up again. And by “started-up” I mean even Noah and all the other animals on his ark would have been wearing rubber boots.

Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! The hail felt like pennies being dropped from a skyscraper.

This, despite the fact that I was wearing a ball cap. Eventually I realized that if I was having such a hard time withstanding the barrage, my hat-less boda driver couldn’t be faring much better. I’d rather not be driven by a blinded motorcycle driver so I took my hat off and plopped it on his head, which he answered with a dripping-wet thumbs-up.

But it wasn’t just the rain. Water was flowing down the roads in every which way. I was on a motorcycle and the dark brown water was up to my ankles. I could feel the rushing water push against our motorcycle as the machine struggled up the hill.

Going down hills, we skidded left and right as my boda driver laughed.

Laughter while careening into oncoming traffic is mildly unsettling.

I would have closed my eyes had they not already been in such a state to protect against the rat-a-tat-tat hail that was machine-gunning my glasses.

* * *

Yesterday afternoon at a pub, I was with one of the foreign correspondents here chatting over beers when a friend of hers walked in and the three of us fell into conversation. This friend had been taking a boda-boda to work last week when the flooding on the road became so bad that the motorcycle lost contact with the ground and began floating. She had to swim out of the flooding and walk the rest of the way to work.

The fact that this degree of flooding happened on a busy road didn’t even rate as news in this city. It’s par for the course when it rains.

* * *

And now, finally, we get back to the theme that connects my aimless walks to elementary school with life here in Kampala. Nature rules here. Nature, in fact, kicks ass. No amount of roadwork, landscaping, drainage work or other infrastructure work could protect against the temporary devastation that accompanies heavy rains.

In Canada, man vs. nature often becomes urban vs. rural. Here, it’s just man vs. nature, and nature wins. Every time.

* * *

Saturday, when I got off the boda after our drive through the rain, I walked over to a local take-out restaurant to get some food since I needed to take my medication with a meal. I got some chicken and waited under an awning for the rain to let up, even a little bit, as the water in the parking lot was up to my shins.

I stood with about a half dozen others who had likewise sought shelter. All around us, pods of people huddled under whatever shelter existed in the area. I noticed chicken eggs floating in the murky water that had filled the parking lot. Within a few minutes a teenage boy, knowing an opportunity when he saw one, waded out to collect the eggs and disappeared into a nearby shop.

The rain eventually let up a bit, and I decided to set off for the rest of the walk home. I hopped from shallow-ish water to shallow-ish water, trying to avoid anything that was deeper than my shins. Eventually I got to a stretch of sidewalk where the water was easily knee-deep.

People stood under shelter on either side of the flooding, rather than navigate the murky waters. Holding my dinner in a hardly-waterproof plastic bag, I was tired of waiting for the rain to decide when I’d get home so I stepped in and, cheered on by people on both sides, waded through in my sandals and khaki pants.

Emerging on the other side, to much laughter, I caught eyes with a young man in the group. I gave him a wink and a smile, as he nodded and smiled too, and took his first step into the water.

  1. Tim Bastedo says:

    Ahh…when are you going to write a book?

    I would read it.

    That’s all.

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