Monday, November 7, 2005

Dan and Francis's Bogus Journey

The flight from Heathrow to Nairobi was on time - actually, a little bit early. Everything went smoothly at passport control and customs, and I had a nice long relaxing wait for my checked bag, which contained all my clothing. I went out the door to where people were holding up signs for arriving passengers, looked from one side to the other, didn't see my name, then looked back to the first side and there was my name, being held aloft by Francis!

He introduced his friend John, and we made it to the car in no time at all - Nairobi's airport is a bit larger than Hilo's, but not too much so. We were on our way out to the airport exit when a policeman waved us over... and the next thing I knew, both the car and Francis were detained for reasons that I didn't understand. John and a couple other friends of his stayed with me for a bit, then John dropped me off at an internet cafe where a very nice young lady let me check my mail and such without keeping count of the time I was spending. (I did give her some dollars when I left, though, for her kindness.)

It took a couple hours for things to be straightened out, and ultimately it came down to the national police at the airport (who it turned out were just trying to get a bribe from Francis) being outranked by a senior provincial officer... whose sister is married to Francis. Bad move, guys - but a good illustration of how "who you know" matters! We made it into town, then Francis had to look around for his wife to get his hand baggage from her for our journey. We collected his friend Moses, who would help with driving, and left around noon - about three hours later than we had hoped to leave, since we were to pick up colleagues at Entebbe airport outside Kampala around 10 or 11 PM.

Initially, the drive up the highway along the rift valley was very nice. The scenery and people were interesting. As we headed west, though, the condition of the road began to vary wildly. I'm quite experienced in driving on bumpy, winding, narrow mountainous roads, but I was jostled around enough times that I didn't even ask to stop for a photo of the sign at the equator, and somewhere west of Nakuru we had to pull over so that I could throw up. Fortunately, that only happened the one time. We hit enough bumps that the brakes started making scraping noises.

It was after 6 by the time we reached the Malaba border crossing into Uganda. The police in control of the gate didn't seem at all interested in opening it for us (at least not without a little "overtime pay"), but the customs and immigration people were very professional and cleared Francis and me and the car (Moses had forgotten his papers!) quickly, then proceeded to go yell at the police for keeping a car in Kenya that was supposed to be in Uganda according to the paperwork. It was amusing, if time-consuming.

On the Ugandan side, we had to stop for road insurance, got through customs and immigration (again, very professional) just before they locked up for the night, and then... well, we did have to pay a couple people for "assistance," but we insisted on official receipts for our bribes. (Since my closest friend in Uganda works for an anti-corruption organization, this was terribly amusing to me.) We were on our way again by about 9:30 PM.

The highway in Uganda was generally better than in Kenya, but it was dark, and rained heavily at times, and there were numerous stretches of construction where the highway was dirt, or had many potholes. One large, sharp-edged pothole got our left front wheel hard enough to bend the rim and flatten the tire, but fortunately it wasn't raining at the time, and with my mobile phone as an emergency "flashlight," and a bit of help from me, Francis got the "donut" spare on quickly.

We made it to the outskirts of Kampala, and spent 88,000 Uganda Shillings (which is a lot less than it sounds!) on a tank of gas, then finally managed to get to our hotel on Lake Victoria about 3 in the morning. As we were signing in, one of our colleagues arrived - his flight from Nairobi had been 3 hours late, and he had just taken a shuttle from the airport. The other colleague we were supposed to pick up hadn't even made her flight.

Francis showered and went to bed at 4; I showered (after 55 hours and about 13,000 miles without one) and went to bed at 5. It had been a long, eventful and interesting (in the "May you live in interesting times" sense) day.

Next time, I think I will either fly or take the train!

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