Saturday, 18 July 2009

Think of the Little People

I'm writing from Kampala in Uganda.

It's my first day in the Pearl of Africa, so I thought I'd throw out some initial impressions while they're still fresh.

The biggest differences with Tanzania are probably the landscape and temperature. Kampala is a stunning city spread across many large hills. For some reason it reminds me of Quito when I look out during the night. Even though the city is very big, it seems peaceful when you're outside of the city center. And because of the altitude, the temperature is much nicer; today, in fact, is some of the best weather I've seen in Africa.

Most people speak English quite well. Almost all of the people I've met have spoken reasonably good English, even if they weren't very educated. English isn't just something used for foreigners, either -- most of the local advertising is written in English. Communicating with non-English speakers is tricky, though, since almost no one here speaks good Swahili. People know a few words, but it doesn't really get you anywhere.

In some ways, there isn't a lot to do in Kampala. The staff at our hotel didn't have any suggestions for sights. Even the Lonely Planet writers, who normally fill their country guides with breathless, enthusiastic reviews of obscure points of interest, only listed two attractions in the city, conceding that one of them was not, in fact, worth seeing. Using process of elimination, I'm going to check out the other sight -- the tombs of the Buganda kings -- after I finish up here.

Despite the absence of attractions in the city, I had quite an interesting morning. Chrissy, my traveling buddy, and I were supposed to catch a bus this morning to Kabale in the Southwest of the country. When we got on, I stuffed our bags into the overhead racks. Shortly before we left, Chrissy noticed that her bags weren't there anymore. The bus driver suggested that maybe one of the official porters had moved the bags into the hold for safe-keeping. I went out and helped the porters check for the bags, but we couldn't find them after checking thoroughly. At this point I was really irritated, and was surprised to find myself back in West (as opposed to East) Africa conflict-resolution mode: yelling, demanding money back, insisting on speaking with the manager, etc. Often raising hell really pays off in those type of situations, but despite the porters' best efforts, they couldn't find the bags. Eventually we realized that a local midget/little person/dwarf (don't really know the correct term here) had come on the bus, taken the bags off the rack and passed them out the window to a regular-sized accomplice. By the time we realized it, however, it was too late, and the diminutive thief had already left the station. No one ever suspects the little people!

Once we realized that the bags were lost, we decided to file a complaint with the local police office, truly a caricature of African constabulary in action -- four sullen, unhelpful men in army fatigues sitting in a tiny room overlooking the bus station. They took about 30 minutes to write a one-page report on the situation, which likely used up their productivity quota for the day.

What else? I've been traveling around the city on bodas -- small, 3-seater motorbikes that weave crazily through the traffic but cost less than taxis. They're fun.

More to come.

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