Here’s What I Learned From Weeks of Travel Throughout Uganda

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For the past month, I’ve been jumping from city to town to village in Uganda for a work assignment. To give an example: the first leg was a 10-day, 2,000 km loop, 50 hours of bus/matatu/lorry-riding.

Here’s what I took away from the first leg:

This room isn't - and shouldn't - be in the Bradt guide, but for 10,000 UGX ($4) it's usually worth the cost

This room isn’t – and shouldn’t – be in the Bradt guide, but for 10,000 UGX ($4) it’s usually worth the cost

How to find a cheap, safe, and relatively clean place to sleep in a city you’ve never been to before, without really trying

1)     Relax – there’s always somewhere with an open bed. If your travel schedule changes at the last minute – and it will – there’s almost always a guest house near the taxi park of a city. You’ll be fine. Embrace the uncertainty

2)     Try to get to your destination while it’s light, but – unless you’re in a particularly dangerous city (Dar es Salaam and Nairobi immediately come to mind) – the darkness will be more of an annoyance than a threat. The world is safer than you may think

3)     Have a Bradt guide or Lonely Planet book with you, but use it more as a guide than a gospel. There are way more guest houses than you’ll find in these books, and often they’re just as nice. The book is nice to have if it gets late or you want to reserve a room (useful for larger cities like Kampala[1]) and the little maps that come with the city descriptions are great

4)     Look for women owners/operators. In my experience, their places are usually cleaner and better run than the rest

5)     Remember that while everything is negotiable – including the price of a room – you shouldn’t be a jerk about it. Saving $2 on a room ultimately isn’t that wonderful

The streets of Kampala are for driving and boda-ing. Not for running.

The streets of Kampala are for driving and boda-ing. Not for running.

How to safely run through downtown Kampala during rush hour

1)     Look both ways

2)     Actually… don’t do this. Ever. Yes, running is a worthwhile, cathartic activity. BUT, running through the streets of downtown Kampala during rush hour is stupid at best, lethal at worst, and there’s no good reason to attempt doing it – it’s like running through Manhattan: possible but… dumb. Have a beer instead (Mom – this is advice from a friend – I would never do something so stupid, right?)

Staying at places like Simba Lodge - a beautiful, cheap resort near Queen Elizabeth National Park - helps

Staying at places like Simba Lodge – a beautiful, cheap resort near Queen Elizabeth National Park – helps

A new city each night is interesting and exhilarating but exhausting.

A year ago, people often brought up how strange it must be to commute via airplane to work as a consultant. But back then, I usually stuck to someplace for a week. Also, it was on an airplane.

Staying in a new city every night is a neat experience, but it’s also exhausting. In East Africa, the public transportation doesn’t help the creeping sense of fall-apart-ness.

West Uganda has lions. Lions! Some of them sit in trees!

West Uganda has lions. Lions! Some of them sit in trees!

West Uganda is more beautiful than the east.

This will only matter for a small minority of you in or going to be in Uganda, but really – go check out the west. The terrain changes from prototypical safari flatlands to kilometers of matooke farms to breathtaking forests.

Just go.

Sometimes, with matatus the chickens are in the inside, not the outside

Sometimes, with matatus the chickens are in the inside, not the outside

Public transportation requires patience and flexibility.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to get where you need to, and will have to change your plan for the rest of the trip.

This is normal. This is OK.

Sometimes, public transportation means hopping in a private lorry truck as it makes its pickup rounds in southwest Uganda. It may take eight hours to get 80km. You may be laughed at for having a cheap cell phone during the ride. You may be talked about incessantly by our seatmates, but in Luganda, a language in which you understand “what’s up,” “how are you,” “thank you,” and “mzungu.”

This is normal. This is OK.

Matthias, one of the two guides

Matthias, one of the two guides, as we walked out of the forest

Sometimes, it’s faster to walk out of a forest than to drive through it.

That’s not a trite, ambiguous piece of metaphorical advice meant to illuminate a larger point in a TEDTalk.

Literally: sometimes it’s faster to hike out of a forest.

For example: after the eight-hour lorry drive and assessing Bwindi Community Hospital, I had to get to Kisoro, south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. At the guest house, I was told that the quickest way to do so was to hike through the forest and catch a ride from the exterior.

So I did.

Five hours of breathtaking hiking later (in both senses of the word), during which my two guides repeatedly asked if I wanted to slow down or rest and I stubbornly said no (poor guys), and during which I didn’t bring any food or water  — because, in addition to being stubborn, I’m an idiot (see above) – we persevered and made it to the top[2].

(Then, in another bout of unearned luck, I found a tourist who happened to be going to Kisoro, and happened to have a lot of extra room.[3])

Thank God for Kindles.

Books are heavy and bulky. A Kindle isn’t. If you’re traveling and literate, purchasing a Kindle will be an investment in your sanity. If you can’t already do so, train yourself to be able to read during bumpy rides.

EDIT: However – always, always put your Kindle somewhere in a hard-to-reach place in your backpack or purse.

Otherwise, you could be walking through downtown Kampala and have yours nicked without you knowing it. This happens, but usually because you’ve been careless and/or foolish.

This applies to all of your nice things.

Particularly to Kindles. Particularly when you’re about to go to Nairobi and the entire northern part of Uganda. Particularly when you’re halfway through David Quammen’s Spillover and desperately want to finish the book.



[1] Though, again, it all depends. My favorite place to stay in Kampala, the Acacia Inn in Kabalagala, is run by lovely people and serves delicious Ethiopian food. It’s also half the price of the Bradt guide “favorites”

[2] Another idiot moment: always ask for a receipt from the Uganda Wildlife Authority agent who you have negotiated a “free pass” with through the forest. If you don’t, when you finish you’ll be chided for not having one and potentially have a drawn-out situation on your hands. Fortunately, when this happened to me, the UWA guys at the end were 100% professional, called the first guy, and I was good to go.

[3] This was complete luck. You should also consider pre-arranging a ride to your next destination

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