we did not conquer
There are a few things you need to know about Kampala.
Ugandan traffic (at least in Kampala), is Canadian rush hour on steroids with no rules (if there are any, nobody seems to follow them). It is absolute chaos, in every sense of the word, with bad roads, daring bodaboda drivers, deep potholes that resemble dark crevices of doom and leisurely pedestrians weaving in and out of oncoming vehicles. Amidst the already bustling disarray, someone left out street signs. Lovely.
Caitlin, my roommate for the next week until she heads six hours north for her placement in Arua, says she could write an entire post alone on the traffic here.
I could write a book.
Yesterday, my boss at Madrasa, Shafique, brought us around the city in a standard four-by-four truck. I feel the need to re-emphasize the gridlock traffic and that this is a city built on seven hills. We met his lovely family and were able to see a large portion of the city. From the safety of the truck, we entered the town center, which in the moment, and even now, felt rather indescribable, but I’ll do my best.
There are people everywhere: selling shoes, clothing, electronics, anything and everything you could possibly need or want. Men with towers of boxes balanced effortlessly on their head breezed through the packed crowd as others weaved in and out of vehicles and merchant areas. To an outsider’s eye, it was pandemonium, to them there seemed to be a fluid understanding in all of the movement.
Shafique warned us to avoid this area, as the densely populated streets allowed us to be easy targets. There was a silent understanding between Caitlin and I that, from the comfort of a locked vehicle, this was fascinating, but to be on those streets, dodging both everyday citizens and maintaining our safety seemed a task far outside our abilities.
Today, however, Caitlin and I were left to our own devices and thought walking in Kampala would be the best way to a) get money and b) familiarize ourselves with the city on foot. We ventured out.
It’s hard to explain the trepidation you feel when walking in a new, unfamiliar city that doesn’t seem to have any formal system for marking roads or businesses. And while your certain safety checks (police station, info booth, signage), are amiss, there is a certain beauty to the chaos, a type of freedom that doesn’t exist within the constraints of the North American lifestyle. People are everywhere, driving on the right and wrong side of the road, bodabodas (small scooter like taxi services) make the street their own and when there is no sliver of space to squeeze through, the sidewalk seems fair game as well. Markets selling meats, fruits and bread line the side of the road in clusters, small booths selling airtime, prepaid electricity and phone chargers set up shop in between markets and on road corners, while local entrepreneurs sell whatever they can in the little space left. Other then the paved street (sometimes), the sides of the road are a red-brown dirt that reminds me of baseball pitches, the kind that stains anything it comes into contact with.
There is an enormous mosque at the top of the hill near Mengo (the area we are living), which we decided would be our landmark for the journey. Not entirely helpful considering we never really knew where in context to the Mosque we needed to be, but I digress, there was a comfort in its familiarity.
We took a few long cuts (mostly to avoid the ‘belly of the beast’ as Caitlin called it) and a few wrong turns, only to very often feel like we were in the same place we had left off. We weren’t lost, we just weren’t entirely sure where our destination (a Barclays ATM) was.
(I feel the need to interrupt this post to say Britney Spears’s “Oops I did it again” is playing on full blast at an event across the street)
After some near death road crossings, a few locals asking if we loved them (Caitlin did), and a few moments of undoubted confusion, we stood at the edge of the crux. No more then 500 metres in front of us was the city’s most tumultuous area.
We saw it, we felt triumphant in our (mostly Caitlin’s) ability to find it, and yet, we turned around. We did not conquer.
I truly want to experience every aspect of this city, to immerse myself in everything it has to offer in my eight month’s here. I want to feel as though, when people visit me, I can show them around with confidence, and yet, staring at that vast, swarming crowd below, attempting to weave our way through when we were already an hour’s walk away from home, with night and rainfall threatening (okay, it was four o’clock and sunny, but still), we turned around.
Everyone keeps telling me to go with my gut. So we did. (Happy mom and dad?) And next time, maybe after making a friend or buying a map (questionable), we will conquer, find what we need, explore and feel confident in our ability to do so.
Until then, there is a very friendly restaurant two blocks away that sells chips and ketchup.