It was a lovely flight on South African Airways. The food was quite good and I wound up sitting next to an interesting Canadian/South African business man. The sun was low on the horizon as we came in over Lake Victoria to land at Entebbe (population ~70k) where the International Airport is located. This is not 1976, I am not about to tell you a story of hijackers and daring rescue.
The view on approach is amazing with the water stretching out, irregularly shaped tree covered islands scattered out from the shore. It was still light as we trooped down the stairs, along the road and into the terminal. We lined up, handed in our health forms and had an electronic fever check prior to being sent to Passport Control. Once again, in spite of everyone saying it was best to get my visa ahead of time – I found my choices were $50 US or 40E on the spot. Hello? Current exchange rate? Love to pay in Euros thank you very much.
My luggage was already on the carousel (and I was 5th in line) which was probably due to the short distance and the fact that we were the only plane on deck. No working ATMS, so I headed outside to look for my transportation. No sign, no indication of my hotel. Checking my email, I find I have no phone number for the Lodge. This turns out not to matter because I don’t have cell service anyway.
Of course the local taxi service is more than willing to provide me a ride. Asking around, one of the other drivers from Kampala says he knows my driver and he is just running late. The traffic is heavy he reports. Just as I am about to give up, a man joins the crowd of drivers with my name on a sign. It is now full dark. We head to the parking lot. There is traffic, I am warned.
It is dark. The sky is overcast. Street lights are rare and only found along a few major streets downtown Kampala. Trust me, this is not a location where you want to rent a car, at least not to drive at night. I don’t worry about the partly pealing dark film on the windows or the crack in the windshield. The car otherwise looks in good shape without either dents or signs of bodywork. This is still right hand drive territory in case you were wondering.
Now imagine: we are traveling along a main road. Barely two lanes wide, it is not divided. Most, but not all vehicles are using their headlights. Shoulders don’t exist; instead one sees abrupt drop off at the edge to ditches. There are pedestrians everywhere. Walking along the road with the traffic. Crossing both lanes whenever they need, dodging cars, bikes, motorcycles and mopeds. Thinking that every single last person who lives here must be returning from work, school or shopping, I am concentrating on being zen. Tenseness is not going to help nor is worry about everyone wearing dark colors, carrying children, young men pushing and showing off for the young women.
Included in the flow are taxis. Legally able to carry up to 14, they stop whenever someone flags them. They stop whenever someone reaches their destination. They even sometimes signal their intentions. In the first half of our journey we must have passed at least one every 100 meters and probably more just on our side of the road. There is a steady stream of cars, trucks, taxis. There are mopeds with 1-3 riders weaving in and around the vehicles. The occasional car/2 wheeler comes down the wrong side to make a right turn easier. My driver comments that it helps to be used to this traffic. There are no traffic lights, no pedestrian crosswalks, no speed limits posted. Actual traffic lanes, passing areas and turn lanes are only concepts; functioning only because there is an agreed upon reality.
About 1/2 way into this journey we hear sirens and promptly pull over to the left. Everyone is pulling over and getting out of the way. I am surprised. Nothing about this trip gave any indication of orderliness. I am informed that it is the President traveling. How does he know? The lead vehicle. One heavy duty safari type vehicle with spinning lights, several other black official looking vehicles, a patrol car, more official looking cars, more vehicles with spinning lights then a cluster of five obviously heavy duty armored SUVs packed closely together and really moving along, chase vehicles with lights, another 1-2 of the safari type rack vehicles (which I realized after the fact had serious people and weapons profiles in the back. Everyone, but everyone got out of their way.
They don’t stop, my driver informed me. Not for anyone or anything. If you are in the way you can wind up dead, injured or in jail. They don’t stop. About another klick up the road we were sent off the main road by police; accident avoidance. The heavily pocked dirt street is lined withstreet stall shops, bars, homes and hovels. The proximity detector works excellently, in fact overtime as cars squeeze past each other on the single lane. Most of the adults along the way are wearing shoes; most of the children are not. It takes a dozen different back roads, twists, turns and bumps before we rejoin a paved road on the outskirts of Kampala (populations ~1.6M).
We finally wend our way through dark areas and up the hill over looking Lake Victoria. 90 minutes underway. Hundreds of mopeds, equal or more bicycles. Thousands of people along the road, in and out of shops, using the taxis, hanging out in front of the bars. About 40 km traveled per Google Maps which suggests 52 minutes without traffic. Which might be about 0300 in the morning. Stores are open till midnight; the bars don’t close.
I’ve driven in Rome, Lisbon and Paris after dark. All of them are civilized and easy-peasy. This is not Europe, nor was it the modern and shiny portion most tourists see if they come to Kampala on business.
Armored SUVs transporting VIPs and shoeless children walking along the sides of the road.