Every time the taxivan hit a pothole my head rebounded off the ceiling with a dull thumpt, and the four fellow passengers on my three-seat rear bench tried to smile without me noticing. I didn’t hold it against them, especially once I saw myself reflected in a store’s window while we sat in traffic; I looked like half of Andre the Giant stuffed into a World-War I submarine, sardined tight around with properly-proportioned stygian sailors.
For a few minutes early in the ride I had attempted to brace my head against the felted roof for stability, but it turned out I could only see about three feet of “curb” that way, and something about the smeary tanned babypoop flow of road below made me nauseous. Rather than risk filling our stifling vessel with Italian “breakfast” I decided to keep my eyes towards the horizon, and prepare in advance for the roadchasms…
‘Tighten all my muscles… NOW! Hmmm, didn’t work that ti---THUMPT----Owwwww, coddlewhop! Surely I’ll predict it right nex-THUMPT-Gah, sonuvabrachiophyte!’
As well as a string of minor concussions, this head position also afforded me an excellent view of the landscapes passing by my window. Their color palette shifted gradually from the dusty browns of Kampala’s suburbs to the insane billboard-advertisement greens of the countryside as we followed the Kampala-Jinja Highway (yeah, that’s its official name) through valleys along the shores of Lake Victoria: most highways here follow valleys since most of Uganda is covered in either jagged hills, rolling hills, or jagged mountains—if the ground’s not jagging or rolling it’s probably a swamp, and then you probably aren’t driving there.
Where we drove now, the hills were all well-rounded, dabbling in factories and schools and little towns, though clearly most invested in the agricultural arts. Stands of timber pine (slightly out-of-place: Alex swore he’d seen one of these exact coniferous slopes just outside of Boulder Junction this summer) gave way to meadows of tea, fields of grain, and something that looked like coffee, all interspersed with the small plots of fruit trees that distinguish this region. Regardless of temperament these fields rarely reached further than ¾ of the way up any given hill, as though gravity sided with the native jungle on top. Sometimes there were little huts or lean-tos of thatch and timber and corrugated metal among the fruit trees or on the edge of a field. Once there was a boy in a faded yellow jersey and orange shorts walking away from the road through the parrot-green tea, but at no point were there streetlights or traffic signals.
We stopped a number of times at rambling single-ply strips of stores and dwellings to exchange passengers. One man who got on halfway through the drive brought a whole bunch of cute chicks with him. I couldn’t figure out why the cashman seemed so reluctant to let the group on, especially as the he had practically begged the last few customers to join our ranks, but then I heard the noise of a hundred or so baby roosters packed into a cardboard box, which, if you are sensitive to that kind of thing, could be pretty irritating. I for one am a huge fan of undifferentiated and constant noise—it’s like the ocean—and plus you could just see little beaks poking out of holes in the box to nibble hilariously at the plants printed on his Hawaiian shirt, so I silently cheered on our automotive agriculturalist.
The gentleman and his feathery entourage exited sometime later at a stand of stores that swam with men and women in matching blue vests, each carrying a basket of different goodies and each trying really, really hard to get our attention. Handfuls of Pepsi bottles and nuts and candy and fried-critter-on-a-stick were shoved through the open windows. The arms blocked vendors’ faces so that all I experienced was a wriggling wall of oddly delicious-smelling octopus tentacles, accompanied by an overwhelming aural tide of pleas and imperatives. I kept catching tiny glimpses of an eyewhite or toothflash or rapidly quivering uvula, but everything shifted too fast for complete identities to come into focus. The commotion was growing towards an impossible level when suddenly the van began to sluuurch forward; faced with mass amputation the less hearty salespeople pulled back quickly, while the truly committed (desperate?) ran along with arms still inside the windows until their Vendor Roulette game got too dicey.
I felt uncomfortable for not being hungrier, or wealthier.
Soon after the way station more and more buildings began to pop up on the roadside, and it was clear we were approaching the outer edge of Jinja proper. We’d read that this city on the source of the Nile is Uganda’s second largest commercial center, and had decided to find out which industries allowed it to financially surpass the higher-populated Gulu to the North (besides a lack of recent civil war, of course); the surrounding village/suburbs revealed only goats and papaya trees.
With billies on the brain I wasn’t fully aware of our direction until we turned a corner and saw a rush of steel girders, then the shattered glass of sun off water, and finally the endless lateral sky of a bridge over the longest river on earth. She’s wide there at the source, wider than I would have thought—in part due to the massive dam just north of the bridge—yet still we passed over too fast, and I kept wishing the engine would stall in the middle of the span.
Thankfully it was only a few more minute’s driving to the center of town, where we paid the cashman and creaked out of the taxi stiff, sore, and hungry to hike straight back to the siren source.
To be continued…