Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Shopping till we're dropping; buying till we're dying

April 13th

Our last day in Uganda. We have booked our tickets home, and therefore all we have to do today is relax and enjoy ourselves. The girls are counting their shillings and trying to work out if they need to change any more money; I’m relatively flush so I treat myself again to an enormous cooked breakfast. It’ll be the last sausages and bacon I eat until I go back to England in the summer!

It’s raining hard once more, so there’s no point in trying to make an early start. There are relatively few touristy places in Kampala (so far as I’m aware); it’s the city centre itself in all its teeming life which is the attraction. So we decide on a leisurely day of shopping, eating, getting some final souvenirs, and yet more shopping.

While we’re eating, we’re entertained by the owner of the Backpackers’ Hostel, an Australian man the same age as me. With him is a squad of Ugandan police, dripping puddles onto the floor from their rain capes. The squad is introduced to us as the Ugandan counter terrorism unit, and they seem to use our hostel as a base for making their daily report on suspicious activity in and around the capital. While they’re doing this they’re being fed on tea and toast courtesy of the hostel. The hostel owner seems to be very much in the know in terms of what’s happening politically, and I suspect he may have more roles in life than just running a hostel.

The owner tells us some of the fun and games that is going on in our part of the world – the Americans have done a gung-ho rescue of a ship’s captain held hostage by Somali pirates, and the French have done something similar to free the crew of a yacht. Therefore the terrorists are swearing revenge against all things French and American, and hence the Kampala anti terrorist people need to be even more on their toes than usual. Al Qaeda has already committed terrible atrocities in East Africa, and there is a big Moslem population here, within which there are undoubtedly plenty of extremists and sympathisers.

When the rain stops we venture forth, back to the city centre. On our first day Kampala seemed enormous; far bigger and busier and more in your face than Kigali. By now we’re used to it; we know enough of the city’s geography to find our way around and we’re beginning to enjoy all the hustle and noise and constant milling of people. It’s just like the pre-Christmas shopping period in England, or the January sales, when you get jostled all the time by the sheer volume of people. Except that here in Kampala the crowds are there on the street by soon after seven and it’s this hectic every single day, including Sundays and public holidays. I like it – when you’ve adjusted to it, it feels fun. People are friendly and almost never hostile towards us. We rarely hear the word muzungu in Uganda, and when we do it’s specifically because they want to catch our attention to tell us something or try to sell us something.

Épi’s got some weddings coming up locally, and Tina’s fiancé graduates from college in a few months’ time, so the girls want to shop for clothes. And, boy, do we shop. There can’t be many clothes shops in the city centre which we don’t visit, and some of them two or three times. The shops are tiny – ten feet by six feet is the norm – and there are no changing facilities. If you are lucky, the shop owner will hold up a piece of cloth to shield you from prying eyes, and if you’re unlucky then you ask Brucey baby to turn his back to you and use his bulk as a shield. Most places seem to have mirrors, but we take a picture of Épi in one creation to show her what she looks like. (And even after all that, she decides against buying it…..)

OK, now for a lesson on how to buy clothes in Uganda. When you have found the dress you like, you have to start haggling. “What is your starting price?” Yeah, right, and if you think we’re going to pay that, you’re joking. We screw up our faces and look as if we’ve just tasted a mouthful of acid. “What is your final price?” Just over half the first price…… OK, that’s getting better, but, hey, we’re experienced Africa hands and the fun is just beginning. We try to beat them down by any means, fair or foul. We tell the shopkeeper we’re living and working in Rwanda; we aren’t rich American tourists. If that has no effect we tell them that we’re volunteers living on next to nothing. (So put your camera away, Soraya, it doesn’t go with the poor muzungu image we’re trying to create). We sigh and huff and make our final offer and tell them that if they accept our price we’ll buy it on the spot. We cheat and say we’ve seen the same thing cheaper in another shop. Sometimes we win; sometimes we don’t. The competition among the Kampala clothes shops is intense, and the best strategy of all is to state a price at which we would certainly buy, and then start to walk away. It takes a really intransigent shopkeeper to see ten thousand shillings walking away for the sake a few more thousand profit….

The clothes shops really are quite something here. You find entire three or four storey blocks of shop units, amounting to several hundred tiny shops in all, and every single one selling clothes. The colours are vibrant, and the designs range from conservative to extremely daring. Most of the goods are made in China; most clothes sold in these shops are new. The shopkeepers are patient and courteous; you don’t get pressurised or hassled. It’s a pleasure to shop. (For second hand clothes you go to the city pavements where sellers will spread a groundsheet over the filthy paving and tip sack after sack of charity-shop goods out. Each item of clothing is smoothed out, held up, and if a fresh sack has just been opened there will instantly be a wall of women two or three deep looking for bargains and delicately handling those things we parted with in England a few weeks ago….)!

I’m looking for CDs of Congolese dance music, but the few I find seem to be such poor quality rip-offs that they aren’t worth buying. I’m also looking for a few more presents for people back home, and we make another swing past the craft shops until I get what I want.

Then we go to a cheap supermarket to buy food items. Things in Uganda are much cheaper than in Rwanda because there’s less transport cost involved. We all buy up luxury food or things we can’t get at home – garlic salt, condensed milk for making bannoffee pie, stock cubes, roiboosh tea and suchlike. We have to be careful because we’re carrying all our purchases home in rucksacks, and we already know there won’t be a lot of spare space on the bus to Kigali. Otherwise we would do a simply massive shop-up and get a couple of months’ worth of provisions!

After all this effort we’re all starting to feel a bit overdone from the heat and bustle, and I think we’re getting genuinely tired by all the holiday excitement. We find a café up on the first floor of a big block and chill out with cold drinks for a while. I take advantage of the raised viewpoint to sneak some pictures of the city centre.

Next to the café is the biggest Sikh temple I’ve ever seen. Almost next door to it is a Jain temple, and immediately alongside that there is a mosque. Meanwhile a few hundred yards down the hill is a massive Hindu temple. It shows just how big the Asian influence is in Uganda, and especially the Indian Asian presence. With Idi Amin’s overthrow and eventual death in exile, many Ugandan Asian refugees have returned to reclaim their property and businesses, and there’s little doubt that it is they who are the driving force in the Ugandan economy. And, predictably, there is a lot of envy and muttering from the black African population. (I know this because the two security guards at the supermarket were grumbling loudly at how arrogant and self obsessed the Indian shoppers were, and how rude they are to the blacks).

The road by the temple is lined with beggars, one of whom is unpleasantly assertive and tries to block the girls’ path until I step in and tell him in no uncertain terms to back off. This turns out to be the only place in the whole of Uganda where we are pestered by beggars. Put it into perspective – there are more beggars in Gitarama bus park than we saw in the whole of Uganda.

The Sikh temple doesn’t seem to be open to visitors, and neither does the Jain one – a pity, because we’ve none of us been inside a temple of either religion and we’d have willingly made a contribution to their funds in return for a look round and a chance to take some pictures.

We return to the city centre bus park via a few other shops; Épi wants to buy bed sheets for her Rwandan boyfriend because he seems incapable of doing it himself (after all, he’s a mere man), and as a final stop we go to a petrol station shop which stocks a wide range of really tasty treats to eat on the bus on the way home. (Its little things that make travel more enjoyable, like a bottle of water which has been frozen solid and which will give me a supply of chilled water all through the night journey as it defrosts). The banana chips sold in this petrol station are absolutely the best, as are the sesame biscuits. But watch out for the red hot chilli flavoured cassava crisps – they’re like eating dynamite!

Back at the Backpackers’ Hostel we drink beer and chill and talk with the other travellers. The three American teachers we met on Ssese are here. So are two of Els’ girl friends from Nyamata. There’s our Californian room-mate Andy, who’s planning the next leg of his world tour (Kilimanjaro), and a Spanish Basque from San Sebastian. There’s Sarah, a beautiful Italian girl working in a water supply project in the remote and lawless north of Uganda, and her Danish companion. There are various other people, several American girls included, and every single one of them is intelligent and good company. They’re interested in our news from Rwanda, and especially because with two year placements we’re here in Africa for a much longer time than virtually anybody else. We swap email addresses with some of them and invite them down to stay with us if they ever feel like experiencing Rwanda. (And who knows; it means we could do some couch surfing if we come back to Uganda later on). Oh, and there’s a weird and rather kinky Japanese man who turns out to be sleeping in the main female dorm. He says he’s a teacher, but within five minutes he’s asking us about relationships between girl pupils and male teachers. Hmm; that’s a funny conversation topic to make with people you’ve only just met, isn’t it? Then Tina, who is sleeping in the same dorm tonight as this guy, finds him lying on his bed wearing just a tiny pair of underpants. That’s not what you do in a mixed dorm, sunshine – you just don’t behave in that way. He’s definitely sleazy. Within ten minutes the word has reached every girl staying in the hostel tonight…. Tina’s not particularly worried; she’s travelled all round the world on her own and she’d send him packing if he tried anything on her. But she moves her things to another bed further away from him in the room.

We’ve almost always managed to have a dorm for just the four of us everywhere we’ve stayed, and hence we’ve avoided all this potential nonsense during our holiday. And me being with the girls means they definitely get less hassle than would otherwise be the case.

As the sun sets we go for a walk away from town, along the main Nateete Road. Somewhere we’ve read that there’s a hotel with a swimming pool close to backpackers. Try as we might, we can’t find it. The hotels along the main road range from classy to desperately run down. Everywhere there is litter and rubbish in the street (reminding us just how pristine and tidy Rwanda is, even in Kigali). We buy avocadoes to have for our supper. Everything in Uganda is more upfront and in your face than in Rwanda. Here there is a Moslem doctor advertising circumcisions in a huge poster. On most road signs there are pasted flyers coyly inviting you to “increase your manhood – no side effects”. It appears that penis size – or lack of it – is an issue among Ugandan men! Other flyers advertise for, or are seeking, houseboys and askaris, and girls as domestic servants. We realise that there’s a huge unregulated labour market in this country.

For my final meal in Uganda I blow out on a steak (again) but why not? I’m on holiday, and for the next three months the highlight of my cuisine will be chewy goat or gristly lumps of cow at “Tranquillité”.

We all have to re-pack our rucksacks to get rid of as many plastic bags as we can (see tomorrow’s entry about Rwandan border controls), and we have a shower before we leave. I refuse point blank to put a soaking wet towel in with the rest of my dry clothes (and presents) in my backpack, so I decide to smuggle at least one plastic bag into Rwanda. If the border guards want to poke around inside my smelly towel, then good luck to them.

The main activity in the evening is planning our next trip as a group of volunteers. We want to do “Zanzitan”. We are planning to travel through Tanzania, preferably by bus (though by train would be even cooler), and end up in Zanzibar. We know it’ll be expensive, but then it’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we’re all up for it. Eric and Els might want to come with us, and six would be a good number socially. The problem is dates. Austen (Tina’s fiancé) has his graduation at the start of July, and Tina doesn’t want to miss it. I’ve booked to fly home to England on July 18th (but could change my flight so as to leave from Dar es Salaam rather than Kigali). Épi might have teaching commitments in the last week of the school term, but I think these could be negotiated. Tina finishes her VSO service at the end of the summer, so we can’t wait until November. If Kersti leaves her teaching job at the American school in Kigali, Épi would be interested in taking it, and would be in with a very good chance. She would finish her VSO service early but stay in Rwanda and move to Kigali. But she, too, would be bound up in school dates and not as free to travel as Soraya and I. So it has to be July, and we’re trying to find a ten or twelve day slot within which we can accommodate everyone.

And hence as we leave Uganda we’re already starting to do our homework for our next big adventure! Uganda has been really lovely; a big part of us really doesn’t want to leave it and return to austere Rwanda.

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