A sojourn to Ssese

Posted: February 28, 2008 in Blog

Pardon the break in posting—it’s due partly to things being busy lately but also partly to being distracted by other things.

Distractions are everywhere here in Kampala, where there are friends, restaurants, bars, cafes, theatres and a host of other things that can wreak havoc on self-imposed deadlines. So Monday morning a friend and I packed our backpacks and took a ferry across Lake Victoria to the Ssese Islands for a couple relaxing, distraction-free days to get some writing and radio editing finished.

The islands, namely the largest one Kalangala, sound easy to reach: head to the neighbouring town Entebbe and take a three-hour ferry ride to the islands for rest and relaxation. But things can get complicated. We first took two boda-bodas from our house to one of Kampala’s two taxi parks where we would get a matatu for the one-hour ride to Entebbe.

The taxi parks are in the south of the city’s central core. There are two Kampala’s, really. The Kampala north of Kampala Road high on the hill where companies have their headquarters, the nice restaurants overlook the city and the various government ministries and humanitarian agencies are headquartered.

Then there is the Kampala south of Kampala Road, which is home to several bustling, chaotic markets, the two chaotic taxi parks and traffic that is well, chaotic. The theme is chaos. But somehow it all works and the markets in this part of the city are fascinating to wander through, where you can find about anything you could ever dream of finding. Likewise, if you need something random done (like having a pair of headphones modified with a different jack, or a phone reconfigured to operate with two SIM cards), this is the place to find it and they’ll likely do it for a couple dollars.

Once our bodas descended into this part of the city, we immediately came to a stand-still. Traffic was jammed in every direction as cars had crossed to the wrong side of the road to get around a blockage, only to be met by trucks coming in the opposite direction. The streets are so narrow and busy that when something like this happens there is no telling how long it will take to get the cars cleared. So we sat. I, on one side of the traffic, and my friend on the other, separated by three or so lanes of cars. On her side, a matatu began bumping into her from behind because the driver wanted the boda driver to move out of the way, leading to my friend eventually turning around and slamming the hood of the van before they would stop. On my side, pedestrians had found a razor-thin break in the wall of traffic, through which they could pass. It was okay to have people squeezing past me, having to push slightly to get through. But it wasn’t just people. Many were carrying things. Not so much bags and purses as, say, five mattresses on their head. On several occasions, I looked up to find a man carrying a pile of mattresses on his head coming straight at us. Hrm. With nowhere to move I ducked and was thankful that mattresses are soft as they crunched against the side of my head.

We sat like this for some time. At one point a large truck began unloading 50 kilogram sacks of grain. But before the men could begin throwing the sacks off the side, they had to unload the body that was sprawled across the top of the sacks. I watched as two men on the truck tossed the body down to two men on the ground, unsure whether he was sick or dead.

Eventually we got through the jam, and were dropped at the taxi park where hundreds of matatus congregate to begin and end their routes.

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Thousands of passengers navigate between the tightly-packed vans, while hundreds more circulate the park selling food, drink, watches, belts, sunglasses, combs, inflatable toys, fly swatters and anything else that someone may, I suppose, I buy on impulse.

A lot of time can pass here. Once you find a matatu that is headed in the right direction you get in and wait. And wait. The vans don’t have a fixed departure time. Instead, they wait until they are full, and then go. It can take two minutes, it can take two hours. One friend showed up at 4 a.m. one morning to get an early ride north to Gulu. He dozed off in his seat waiting and woke up five hours later to find himself still in the taxi park waiting for the rest of the bus to fill.

But we were lucky. We were one of the first to climb into the matatu but it filled up quickly and in a matter of minutes we were on the road. The van had barely left the park when the man next to me nestled up against my shoulder and fell asleep.

An hour later, we were in Entebbe, on two more boda-bodas for the two kilometre ride to the ferry dock, and then onto the ferry itself where we settled in for the ride.

The ferry is a nice one—very similar to ferries you see in British Columbia. There was even a flat screen TV where we watched the first two Shrek movies during the ride. This type of transportation is preferable to the alternative—overcrowded flat barges carrying equipment and supplies where you can squeeze on and stand for the hours-long ride without life jackets or any railing. Every year, dozens drown on those barges, made worse because so few here can swim. We laughed when in our guidebook the author recommended using a piece of rope to tie a jerry can to your chest as a floatation device if you took one of those barges.

Upon arrival we strolled off the ferry to find a peaceful, secluded shoreline dotted with several modest campsites and resorts. We wandered along the beach, stopping in at each place to see their facilities and prices. It was nice not to plan ahead, but to just wander along the beach looking for somewhere to stay. We eventually settled on a place just off the beach that was nicely-priced with good bandas (individual cement huts). It turned out to be a great choice, with great food eaten in the light of a kerosene lamp and, each night, a campfire.

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Our reason for coming was to get work done away from distractions in Kampala, but we were happy to relax our first night and enjoy a few cold drinks by the warm campfire. There is only electricity from 7:30 p.m. to midnight each evening so that was our window of opportunity for any work that would require our laptops.

Because of the electricity issues, we spent much of Tuesday reading, or walking along the beach (but not swimming, because Lake Victoria is, well, swimming with Bilharzia).

We also hung out with some people at a neighbouring camp to enjoy a couple mid-afternoon beers.

In the end, neither of us got as much work done as we’d hoped, but it was a great break from Kampala, in a place that I’d heard a lot about. One thing it reinforced though? Having spent three days staring at a freshwater lake I couldn’t swim in, I don’t care how cold it is when I get home, I’m going for a swim in the lake.

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