weekiversaries, taxis and malls

Today marks the completion of my first week in Kampala.

I believe the first week, or even month, of being somewhere is a testament to how you will feel in a place for the duration of your stay, be that a handful of weeks or a couple of months. Your instinct and initial reaction are far more telling, not only of your compatibility with a certain place, but of your willingness to integrate yourself into an entirely different culture.

Right now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

I love the bustling of the city, I love how present everyone is in everything they are doing. I love the vibrant colours, the dynamic of merchants and buyers, the hum of a city so full of life that I can’t quite imagine ever having a quiet moment unless a pair of ear plugs are involved. I’ve told multiple people that I am willing to stay in Kampala for as long as the city will have me. I’ve been told that this may change, that I may grow tiresome, but I’m not sure this is true. I can’t imagine my first impressions, which have been equally intriguing and positive, making a shift towards the negative.

That being said, certain aspects of life in Kampala, while not necessarily pessimistic, can be a bit disquieting.

We have finally ventured out of the confines of Mengo (the subdivision of Kampala where we are staying). We decided to go to Garden City, a place we’d gone our second day here. It resembles mostly a western mall with shoe shops, book stores, food courts and shoppers going about their daily routine. At night, however, after the shops close, the venue remains open as somewhat of a social gathering point and as Thursday was a national holiday, the shopping centre was brimming with people of all ages socializing and interacting.

Getting to Garden City, however, was the adventure in and of itself.

The taxi service industry in Kampala is interesting and despite having used it a handful of times, I am still unsure as to its organizational structure. There is no one-dial number where a friendly operator asks your location and thereby directs a driver to you. I’m not even sure if there are different taxi businesses or if one can just wake up one day and decide they’ll be a taxi driver.

It seems perfectly natural when calling a driver (on their personal phone), if unavailable, for them to then pass your number on to a variety of their colleagues. Eventually, after numerous phone conversations with a handful of different people, all asking similar questions (where are you? where are you going? wait, where are you?), you are told someone will pick you up. By the end of it, you’re entirely reliant on this individual to show up at the agreed meeting place in an unmarked vehicle.

We’ve been told (warned) to only take rides from taxi drivers that we know, however I’m not entirely sure at what degree of separation we are to cut ourselves off. If Derek the taxi driver calls his friend, who calls his friend, who calls his acquaintance, can we really be sure he is a stand up guy?

Our first driver, Richard, was a friend of a friend of Caitlin’s friend (I use the term friend loosely here). He was a cautious driver (again, using the term cautious loosely – cautious by Ugandan standards, I’ll say) and brought us to our destination with relatively no problems.

After spending nearly seven hours at Garden City (yes, that is a long time to spend at the mall, even by Kampala standards), and after running into my gracious boss, Shafique, and his family, we decided it best to head home. After three or four confused phone calls with three or four different individuals, we were picked up.

Our second taxi experience was unnerving to say the least. The driver, who was less talkative than Richard (we tend to try to make friends wherever we go), expressed that his day had not been so great. Okay, that’s fine. Everyone’s allowed to have bad days. The condition of his car was a concern the moment we hit the road (I’m not sure they have monthly maintenance checks here – although I’m sure if they did, this car would not be on the street). Every time we hit a pot hole or road bump (approximately every seven seconds), the car made a lurching noise like it was about to be sick (and thereby lose the front and/or back bumper). Still, I was not overly worried.

That is, until we pulled into a gas station where the driver proceeded to put gas into the car, while it was still running.

Cailtin and I exchanged bewildered looks like is this even legal and after a thirty-four second discussion and inner debate on whether it was more embarrassing to get out of the car and casually watch the driver put gas in or perhaps idle inside with the risk of possibly blowing up with the car.

Our survival seemed more likely from outside the car, so we stepped out (by which I mean jumped out) and waited until the driver was finished before getting back in. We exchanged a series of uncomfortable looks with the driver during this time outside of the car. His regret of taking our call was quite evident.

The rest of the drive home was a series of back ways and short cuts that had me cataloguing directions (left, right, yield, sharp right, left, left, shit was that straight? right, left, lost) in order to later translate them to my dad if a taken scenario was to unfold. I was feeling very Liam Neeson.

We eventually did arrive home and have come to the collective decision we will be calling Richard next time we need a ride into the city.

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