On our first day riding, it was a struggle to get out of the tangled web that makes up Kampala. It’s the capital and by far the largest city in the country. The roads are congested by trucks, cars, boda boda motorcycles, people, and animals and that day the streets were loud and bursting with activity. After only two days in Uganda everything still felt foreign and surprising. Before we stopped for lunch I noticed Jackie’s hands shaking with all the nervous energy. These were the first few chaotic miles of what we hoped to be a 1500 mile loop around Uganda and Rwanda, I was full of adrenaline and excitement too.
When we told people about our upcoming trip, they would invariably ask us about the danger. “Are you taking medication for malaria?” “Will you sleep in a tent?” “Aren’t there lions?” “Did you know that hippos are actually very dangerous?” We had chosen to come to Uganda because we had read about it online and fallen in love with the idea. But now that we were finally out riding, out in the real Uganda.
“Muzungu!” cried a little voice somewhere close by, pulling me out of my thoughts. I looked around and saw a small child, maybe 4 years old. He was wearing clothes that look second or third hand and no shoes, standing in the yard in front of his house and waving his tiny chubby hand at me. “Muzungu! Muzungu! Bye Muzungu!” he yelled as we continued pedaling by. Jackie turned back and smiled at me. “And so it begins,” she said, “we knew this was going to happen.”
The city faded into agricultural land and the pavement turned to red dirt. The cries of “Muzungu! Muzungu!” started up again, first in little chirps, then in choruses. “Muzungu” literally means “white man” but Ugandans use it to refer to all kinds of foreigners.
Mid afternoon we saw a man on a single-speed steel bicycle selling pineapples. We were hungry and eager to try what we were sure to be some of the freshest fruit we had tasted. So we stopped and asked the man to cut us one. His long boney fingers made easy work of the pineapple, slicing it into even sixths. While he prepped the pineapple, a group of children surrounded us. Some had brown shorts sewn from burlap sacks, others had second hand shirts, a more memorable one reading Flat Earth Society. Some wore sandals, but most were barefoot. They were smiling bright white and almost leaping in the air with excitement. A younger girl was visibly shaking, clearly overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment. I laughed as the pineapple salesman muttered “Cutting a pineapple for Muzungus,” between upturned lips. They were excited to see us, and their energy was contagious.
As we traveled on, camping at night or staying in hotels, the trail took us down dirt roads and footpaths that were wide enough for boda bodas. Bodas are small Chinese motorcycles with extra long seats which are used as a taxi service everywhere in Uganda. I saw them carrying herculean loads of bananas, a whole sofa, even families of five. These dirt arteries provide movement of goods and people from the most remote reaches of Uganda ultimately meet with the main roads. It was there we would find ourselves heaved from the sweet and bucolic countryside into roadside towns.
In these trading centers, the people come to sell fresh fruit, hand stitched clothing, household goods, and cell phone minutes. There are bars with TVs and it’s June 2018 so like us the locals are following the FIFA World Cup. Passing from the countryside to the small towns was like passing from one world to another. Traditional mud houses with thatched roofs are replaced by single story brick buildings, the noise of distorted speakers turned all the way up is blended with the acrid smell of open sewers.
The first time we arrived at one of these road side towns Jackie was visibly spooked. Her face verging on tears told me “I want to get out of here as fast as I can.” My years in the military serve me well in situations like these. I stand tall, move with a purpose, and efficiently complete the task of getting our supplies. You never want to look weak or unsure. Those are the signs of an easy target. I walked into the maze of wooden vegetable stalls and negotiated the prices for the foods on my mental grocery list. Contrary to Jackie’s fears, the people were pretty nice. My suspicion is confirmed that Jackie may be overreacting a bit. Sure, the truckers and the prostitutes are exchanging money for services, a few alcoholics are here, and others have clear mental health issues, but most people are kind honest business types trying to support themselves and their families.
We leave town with our groceries, Jackie not wanting to linger. We find a church and spread our tarp on the packed earth. I start preparing our lunch and a large group children form, attentively watching my every move. It’s day 6 and I’m used to this behavior now. As I slice the avocado, tomato, onion, and mango in a small titanium pot, a whisper passes around the circle of kids announcing each new addition. Avocado! Tomato! I mix in lemon juice and salt and laugh as I spoon the mango guacamole onto chapatti to make wrap sandwiches, a recipe of my own improvisation. An American in Africa using a bastardized Mexican recipe and rolling it into Indian flatbread bread, what a world.
I look around at the now two dozen little faces watching us. My mind stretches as I try to imagine what it must be like for the kids. What do they know about us? Perhaps they make up stories in their minds about why we are there, in their town. Maybe their parents have told them about us. Do they dream of being as rich as us? Or is that as unfathomable to them as being a billionaire is to me? I feed the last titanium spork of guacamole from the pot to Jackie and a chorus of giggles rings out. I dare Jackie to give me a kiss and she blushes, “we can’t do that!” she says looking around, “we’ll cause an uproar.” So we clean the dishes, wash our hands, and ride off.
We have been in Uganda for about three weeks now. Everyday we learn something to give us greater insight to the country we’re traveling through. And not just traveling through, but traveling through slowly by human power, there is no window between us and the scenery. We’re pedaling our bicycles out of our comfort zones, in a foreign land with people we don’t know and animals we have never seen.
We still have the stories of African Sleeping Sickness and raging hippos swimming through our heads. The dangers are real, there are challenges and frustrations. But we are also met with sincere interest and kindness from strangers. On long climbs when our speed is slow, groups of children give chase, following us and chanting “Muzungu! Muzungu!” in high pitched squeals of excitement. It feels the way I imagine it feels to run in a major marathon, where spectators cheer you forward. “Well done!” says an old man as I pass. I try to catch my breath. “Thank you,” I say.