Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Homeward bound; the night bus to Kigali

April 14th

When you’re waiting for a midnight departure, the evening seems to last for ever. We are warned not to go to the Jaguar bus station on boda-bodas as their drivers are all likely to be drunk at this time of night. Most matatas will have stopped running, so we haven’t much option but to hire a taxi. Our backpacks are not particularly heavy, but we’re so weighed down with shopping that walking the mile or so to the depot won’t be a pleasant experience. Also, Épi’s not feeling on top form.

The taxi driver is one we’ve used before, so we trust him and off we go (just me, Soraya and Épi – Tina’s decided to stay on for a few days and get her hair cut), arriving at the bus station a good half hour before departure time. It’s a good job we don’t leave it any later. The bus is pretty well full already, and there’s no space left for our rucksacks either in the baggage racks or in the under floor stowage. Worse than that – it appears the bus company has sold our seats to other people, and Épi and I find a couple of Pakistani gentleman claiming the same positions.

This sets off a right old argument with the bus company, and I’m feeling tired and jaded and generally bolshie so I’m not backing down. Off we go to the ticket office across the yard, and I point out to the man our names which I have written very clearly on his booking form. Our tickets are reserved, paid for, and claimed. A Ugandan guy next to me tells me quietly that there’s been a lot of this double selling recently; it seems to happen because there are a lot of people doing the bookings; they’re all far too happy to take people’s money and make promises of seats, and sometimes they just hope that everything will work out rather than doing a proper check of what’s available.

As we booked first, we’re allowed onto our seats. (We make a particular fuss that we don’t want to be separated from our friend Soraya, whose seat isn’t in dispute). There’s a relief bus running a couple of minutes behind ours, and our Pakistani friends get transferred to this second bus. It all makes for some unexpected stress just when we think we’re home and dry.

The bus is absolutely full; our rucksacks are in the gangway (which would be illegal in England because they’re blocking the emergency exit). There seems to be at least five crew members – the driver, a relief driver, and three others. Why they need five people is beyond me. Two of them don’t have seats, one drapes himself in the very front, just behind the windscreen, and the other one is beside me and keeps trying to use my rucksack as a cushion to sleep on. The man stinks of B O and I’m not too keen on getting yet another rucksack ruined by stinky people, so I resist.

Épi and I heave a sigh of relief when we pull away exactly on time at 1.00 a.m. We have a near fatal accident before we’ve even left Kampala. Either a boda-boda tries to squeeze past us too close and cut us up at a junction, or our driver doesn’t see him coming up behind. There’s a big bang as we sideswipe the boda-boda, and its two passengers – young women – are tossed into the road. It’s a near miracle that neither of them goes under our wheels. Nobody – driver or passengers – is wearing a crash helmet. Our bus crew stop to see if anybody is hurt. Fortunately all they seem to have is bruises and dented dignity. From then on our happy little crew laugh like drains about the accident.

Once we’re outside of Kampala and the interminable speed bumps in the main road, we chase along at a ridiculous speed. We overtake everything on the road. There are a few police check points, but the night bus seems immune to any controls. The journey is organised for the crew’s benefit. We stop at one point so that they can buy take-away food and sodas. We stop further on to refuel; passengers are allowed off to relieve themselves, but the toilets can’t cope with all those who need them so most men line up just beyond the bus’ headlights and let fly into the night. The driver’s in such a hurry to get going that the last couple of people have to sprint back so as not to be left behind.

Of course, we can’t see anything out of the windows. Uganda seems to be more lit up than Rwanda at night, but between the towns it’s just an inky blackness. We’re not bothered because we saw the scenery on our inbound journey.

Some parts of the journey are scary. The tarmac surface of the road isn’t really quite wide enough for two big vehicles to pass, so when we cross a lorry, or overtake something, we have to lurch out with our left hand wheels on the tarmac and our right side ones on the earth verge. There’s a massive bump and jolt as we leave the road, and again as we rejoin it. We can quite see how so many fatal accidents happen with these long distance buses. They drive so fast; they have a “king of the road” mentality, and expect everything to give way to them. When you see the size of the loaded petrol tankers and huge container trucks we’re crossing, you realise that in a full scale collision we wouldn’t get away unscathed.

At least on this run everybody wants to sleep. We’re spared the Nigerian video soap operas of the inboard run. Lights are out and we try to make ourselves as comfortable as we can in an extremely cramped space. When you’re as tall as I am, “comfort” doesn’t come into it. My knees are jammed into the back of the seat in front, and our seats are so narrow that neither Épi nor I can get comfortable without jamming our hips into each other. My neck has no support at all and every time I try to go to sleep I can feel the muscles getting strained. In other words it’s just like a transatlantic charter flight!

All bad things come to an end, however, and eventually the sky starts greying as dawn approaches. We are in the beautiful south-west hills of Uganda, close to the Rwandan border. Outside it’s foggy, and the temperature must be about twenty degrees colder than in Kampala. It feels like a very different place.

As the sky lightens we can start to see colours, the beautiful deep greens of well-watered grassland. People are up and about; children still seem to be going to school and are scattering out of juggernaut’s way in their uniforms. (Do Ugandan schools have any Easter holiday at all? – everywhere we’ve been on this trip we’ve seen children in their uniforms).

As we come to the frontier there’s a desperate scramble to be first off the bus and at the head of the passport controls. (Stupid really, because the bus can’t leave until everybody has been processed, even if they’re the very last in the queue). Outside the bus the weather is cold, damp, dewy and drippy. We’re herded in the open air onto a steep, muddy, slippery bank lined with sacks of potatoes awaiting their sellers to arrive. As usual, many passengers think they’re too important to need to queue and these people simply barge into the front of the line. Of course, being British, I take my place in the queue and wait. And wait. It takes more than an hour to exit Uganda and enter Rwanda, with two forms to fill in, to very serious scrutinising of our visas, and a lot of stamping.

While we are queuing, all our baggage is removed from the bus by the crew and lined up in the wet road for customs inspection. We have to claim it after we’ve been processed, and re-stow it on the bus. And, of course, the Rwandans have this mania about not letting plastic bags into the country. Épi has her shopping and her food for the journey in a plastic bag; the bag has been confiscated and all her stuff is scattered over her seat in full view and just inviting any thieves to come and help themselves. Somehow, in the process, they’ve also partly emptied my cloth bag, and it occurs to me that I was a bit naïve to hide my iPod inside it. The earphones are there, but the iPod itself is missing. I curse myself for a fool. I should have known that nobody would be able to resist a rummage through muzungus’ possessions at any opportunity. Then, as I’m sitting down, I see a bump in a piece of cardboard on the floor, and find my iPod under it. Now this couldn’t possibly have been caused by accident. Someone has deliberately been through my bag, found the iPod, disconnected the speakers, and “accidentally” hidden the iPod in the hope that I give up on it and leave it for them to reclaim when we reach Kigali. Any travellers reading this blog – take note!

All three of us have plastic bags in our rucksacks, containing wet towels and such like. Mercifully, our main rucksacks are not interfered with. I expect the Rwandan authorities just give them a squeeze and see if they can hear plastic rustling inside.

Britney and Kathie, from Gitarama, turn out to be either on our bus or on the relief bus, so we nod to each other in the queue for passport stamping. Nobody wants to talk; we just feel too tired and sleazy. The money changers are out in force, see us muzungus, and pounce. They seem positively affronted when we tell them we live in Rwanda and we have all the francs we need on us – some of the men really don’t want to believe us. Mind you, what a job – out at dawn every day with your life savings in your pocket and desperately hoping some gullible westerner will fall for your glib chat line and sleight of hand as you count notes.

It’s a relief to be back in Rwanda, even though we know that Uganda is a better and easier place to live. We bump past the tea plantations and up to the pass near Byumba, and then rattle down past the sugar cane fields and rice paddies until we can see the outskirts of Kigali in the distance. The day is heating up fast; those people who seemed so sensible in their fleeces at the border crossing are now sweating and straining inside too many layers of clothes.

At the Nyabogogo bus terminal we say farewell to Épi, and Soraya and I catch a “Horizon” bus home. It’s the first time we’re tried to catch one other than at the main depot, and we’re really lucky because we both manage to get a “proper” seat rather than a tip up one. However, we’re holding our rucksacks and shopping in our laps and once again the ride isn’t comfortable.

Tina texts us to say it’s a beautiful morning in Kampala and that she’s enjoying herself, and after buying some phone credit I can make some calls I need to do.

On my way back to the flat I bump into Janine, who’s just finished cleaning and is taking Tom’s washing with her. My stuff will have to hang around for a week and poor Janine will have a mammoth laundry to do next Monday! She’s so lovely – she makes a fuss of me and tells me she’s happy to see me back in Gitarama. At the flat I just flop out; unpacking; washing smelly towel and filthy cloth bag; then a shower and shave and collapse on the bed for a couple of hours of proper rest. Tom’s in Kigali and won’t be back till late, so I go shopping round the market and make a pretty good lentil stew for me and the guard.

I’ve got time to download all my Ugandan pictures, and I’m pleased with them (you’ll see a lot of them on the blog in due course). Even better is that I know I’ll have some lovely pictures from the girls to add to them.

I just about manage to write up today’s blog while it’s fresh in my mind, but there are about ten previous days to do and I’m certainly too tired to do any more tonight.

Best thing about today – being home after a very special holiday with good friends.

Worst thing – after all the excitement of holidays and travel, I’ve got that “down” feeling everybody has when the fun has ended and you are about to pick up the pieces of normal life.

This is my 500th blog posting!

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