Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Easter Day on the Equator

April 12th Easter Day

I always seem to be travelling on Easter Day. Last year I was with Marisa, coming home from Gikongoro and thinking we were much acclimatised to Rwanda after spending a few days at Tiga’s house. This year I’m in a different country, returning on a car ferry after a few days in Paradise!

The day begins at about 4a.m. Outside our banda the wind is roaring and it’s obvious that the storm is about to hit us. Neither Tina nor I is properly asleep, and we both have the idea of going for a pee before the rain lashes down.

While we’re out of the hut, the lightning puts on a tremendous show for us. The sky is almost continuously lit, and you could just about read a book, so frequent are the flashes. As yet there’s no thunder and only a few drops of rain spitting in the wind. The entire camp site is deserted, and even the thumping disco music from other camp sites has ceased. It’s beautifully wild. There’s a couple of hurricane lamps left burning all night, usually outside the main huts or bandas; otherwise it’s pitch dark African night with just the fireworks in the sky for illumination. I take Tina down to the lake side and for a few minutes we watch the light show. But soon we start hearing thunder and the drops of rain blown in the wind get more frequent. Nature’s grandeur is all very well, but we haven’t got enough dry and clean clothes to risk getting caught out by a sudden deluge. And for the first time in Uganda I feel really cold – I have goose pimples.

So we run back to our hut and scramble into our beds; I just about demolish my mosquito net in the process. I close the side hatch above my bed so that the rain won’t come in, but at the same time it makes our hut stifling hot and totally dark inside. Even the little lizards and geckos that patrol our bandas have disappeared. A pity, because they do a good job of keeping the place free from mosquitoes. Soraya has brought a coil but we really don’t need to use it.

I try to plug in my iPod to recharge, but the solar panel electricity is too weak at this time of night to register as charging.

For the next three hours or so we sleep fitfully as the storm rages above us. The thunder is very loud and concussive – the entire banda shakes and rattles to the vibrations. We have alternate very heavy downpours, then lighter phases when it is merely raining as opposed to pouring. The thunder and lightning fade away across the lake towards Kampala and we’re left with endless rain.

Before dawn the Indian campers are awake, but when they wake they do everything with shouts as if there’s nobody else on the site and as if they’re all half deaf and nothing can be communicated without bawling at the tops of their voices. The women are as bad as the men.

Also, the Danish people next to us are awake early, and the walls of the banda (ours is a semi-detached one shared with them) are so thin you hear everything. So what with the storm, the Indians, and the Danes neither Tina or I feel rested and it’s a relief to have to get up.

There has been a leak through the slatted wooden walls, right onto my mobile phone, but fortunately it still works. Even more fortunately my spare clothes, piled up on the floor next to my rucksack, are also dry. Outside everything is dripping; the grass is saturated with big puddles around the wash place and the main routes inside the camp. The soil is a quagmire.

As it’s still raining we don’t bother with much washing. I have to go and bang on Épi and Soraya’s door to wake them up, and we squelch through soggy grass and gluey mud across a couple of fields to the big car ferry. The ferry is already crowded. It is licensed to hold a hundred passengers, but there are already far more than that number and people keep arriving. As it’s the only sailing of the day the crew don’t turn anyone away, but it doesn’t bear thinking about if the thing hits a rock and sinks mid-lake.

The Indians have taken over the first class section; all our friends from the camp site – Danes, Germans, and some stray others, are in economy of course. The floor’s awash with rainwater and there’s not enough room for everyone to sit.

As we board the ferry we are checked with a metal detector and have to empty pockets and Tina and I have to undo our rucksacks (in the pouring rain, of course), to have their metallic contents checked. You don’t have to put up with that on the Isle of Wight ferry!

We set sail promptly at eight, with every inch of floor space occupied by people and their baggage. One Ugandan is loud and friendly with everyone; a Dutch girl sitting with us tells us that he has been drinking continuously since Good Friday when he arrived. Here he is on Easter day, bottle of “Nile” in hand, trying to chat up all the unaccompanied women and scrounging sandwiches off people he’s met in one of the other sites.

The ferry crossing takes more than three hours; there’s nothing much to look at and the sky, lake, and waves are all a uniform grey. It rains for the entire crossing. The boat sells hot drinks and food, and periodically we all have to squeeze out of our seats to let people through. Tina buys a hardboiled egg and a piece of cake, and that’s the only Easter Egg we have in 2009. A bit galling when Austen rings Tina to tell her that he’s making some headway on an enormous chocolate bunny he’s bought himself back in London.

Among the other passengers on the ferry are Britney and Kathy from Gitarama; it really is amazing that in all of Uganda we should be bumping into people from our own town in Rwanda. Kathy seems to have some children with her; whether they are from Momma’s orphanage or from elsewhere I never discover.

It takes a long time for us to get tied up at the slipway in Entebbe, but at least the rain is fading out to drizzle. Everyone is pushing and shoving to be the first to get ashore, long before the ramp has been lowered. Two of the rally car drivers are revving up their engines and sending exhaust fumes straight into the passenger cabin on the boat.

We let the impatient rabble get ashore before we make a move. And then we’re lucky because we find a matata who is going all the way from the ferry to Kampala town centre. We bargain hard for a price, but there are few other passengers left and the driver wants to leave, so we get an extremely good fare.

Entebbe is just like the guidebooks say – beautiful, laid back, a sort of tropical Lymington. There are a lot of working boats along the lakeside; fishing boats and cargo boats. Very few yachts or pleasure boats – quite a surprise, that, given the amount of wealth and the number of expats living in the area. There are some beautiful little bays around the lakeside with bungalows lining them, and also some green parks and open spaces. In fact it’s the parks which really make all the Ugandan towns we’ve visited pleasant to stroll around, and the lack of public open green space in Rwanda which makes Rwandan towns unfriendly places for visitors.

Entebbe never quite ends and then we’re in Kampala. Ribbon development is rife here in Uganda. We pass through some very run-down districts and eventually are decanted exactly where we want to be – the central bus park. After all the rain, the mud and puddles and general filth in the bus park is grotesque. We are glad to escape to the relative security of a busy shopping street.

We decide that what we need to do is get back to our hostel and drop off our baggage, and then come back into town for some excitement. At Backpackers we are greeted like old friends, but there’s a problem with our room. Four people are already in it; they have gone off today to do Kampala without saying if they’re staying the night and without returning the key. There’s a five bed dorm next door; are we prepared to have it and share it with an American man? No problem, we say, and David, the American, is a charming guy. He’s a computer professional from California who is taking a break from work to travel round the world and extend his horizons. He proves good company and it’s nice to have a different voice to listen to.

Back in the town centre we walk round and round. Unfortunately most of the craft shops are shut, but lots of food and clothes places are still open and there aren’t so many people about. We hire boda-bodas and endure another hairy ride up to Garden City; Épi and I have a frighteningly close encounter with the edge of a bus at one crossroads.

In Garden City we manage to withdraw some money, then return to the town centre. There’s a live music concert in a stadium exactly in the middle of town, but we decide we’re too tired to go in and see what it’s like. We’ve found a little bar with a raised seating area, and we sit there and have a beer while it gets dark.

We decide to walk back all the way to the Backpackers’ Hostel; on the way we pass the Jaguar bus station and I manage to change our booking to the right day with no extra charge. It doesn’t seem to take us too long to return home, and on the way we stop at a street side market where they’re doing rollex for supper. A rollex is an omelette inside a pancake roll. It’s very filling, absolutely clean and hygienic and a good way to eat. And you can eat in the street in Uganda; none of this eating in secret that we have to put up with in Rwanda.

I try some brochettes, too, but they aren’t as nice as the Rwandan ones. In Uganda they cook the goat meat with the bones still in place; you get chunks of goat leg with the skewer going through the bone marrow.

Back at the hostel we chill for an hour or so, and then it’s off to bed. After a disturbed night and a very early start this morning, we’re all tired out.

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