Tuesday, 19 February 2013

In Which Alex Attempts To Instill In Readers (Hi, Moms!) His Irrational Fear Of Fast-Moving Vehicles

Remember that time you went to Six Flags or Disney World or Cedar Point or wherever when you were a kid, and there was that roller coaster, the one where the track at the top dropped off into a stomach-grabbing nothingness and finally reappeared two hundred feet below, the one with loop-de-loops spiraling around inside other loop-de-loops, the one from which you heard agonized terrified shrieks whenever a car went over the edge? If you were like me, you stayed the ever-loving hell away from that place so evidently peopled by the tortured souls of Children Who Had Been Bad, now forced to ride a deathcart surrounded by the sounds of sheared metal and the smell of raw fear.{1} You probably got hysterical whenever someone even mentioned the possibility of you making the slow ascent up the Staircase into the Boarding Area {2}—which might have been the Executioner's Chamber for all your nerves were concerned.

{1} Cause really, what else could induce people to put themselves in a little box and hurtle over cliff edges at what must be supersonic* velocity?
{2} No one? Just me got hysterical? Well, at least now you have a face to pin to “that kid who was terrified of his own shadow.”

If instead you got seated in the front row, nonchalantly glanced around as the attendant lowered the safety bar and did a couple of brief look overs to make sure you wouldn't die, and then had the time of your life feeling your guts spend two minutes wholly not inside your torso: you likely will not understand the tone of this article. But hey, that's ok, because you can treat it as a rare psycho-pathological portrait of those of us with chronic mild vertiginous tendencies.


Here in Kampala, they don't have roller coasters. This is probably because your average working-class poor resident can get all the thrills he or she needs for a year or so in one 30 minute burst, for about $2. The vector for all this infectious fun is the boda-boda.

Boda-boda can be translated into American English only as “motorcycle”; however, based on behavior in the wild, I'd put them taxonomically in the same order as motorcycles, maybe even the same genus on a good day—but I'd never ever claim that they're the same thing. The word itself originally referred to bicycle taxis that would carry weary bus passengers across the sometimes interminable distance between customs checkpoints at international frontiers, yelling “border-border!” to attract customers. Boda-boda have since hit a rebellious and angsty thrill-seeking adolescence, graduated to motorbikes, and moved in everywhere, being generally loud, obnoxious, polluting, and totally the best.

My first indication that
boda-boda riding might be only slightly less hazardous than crash-testing Ford Pintos for a living came before I even arrived in Uganda. A helpful travel website cheerfully informed me and all other visitors that boda-boda drivers don't all wear helmets, but even if they do they won't have one for you as a passenger, so really you're better off choosing a driver without one since he'll {3} have more incentive to drive carefully.

Any situation where you're supposed to trust the men who for a living dart through third-world traffic without anything between their brains and the pavement besides a thin layer of bone and skin 
is not a good one to be in.{4}

{3} And it is absolutely 100% invariably a he.
{4} But I mean my muzungu hair would totally protect me in a crash, so I'm ok.

As you may have gathered, I do not fit the profile of your average adrenaline-junkie, and was not clamoring to go a-boda-boda-ing from the outset. However, in a city that has the traffic Chicago would have if every driver were your grandmother on methamphetamines, sometimes you have no choice but to cough up a buck or two,{5} hop on the back of something that can split lanes {6} and dart in front of large trucks and buses.

That is to say, the first time Sam and I rode a boda-boda, it was super totally urgent and necessary and not just because we thought it'd be serious fun to try. Really.

{5} Literally.
{6} “Lanes” being a concept with not even like lip-service paid to it here.

Boda-boda are easy enough to find—their drivers hang around in packs of between 2 and 10 on the sides of busy roads, waiting for someone to pass and ask for a ride. Alternately, if you need to go in a hurry, you can just start walking and guaranteed an unoccupied boda will pass you within the minute and say “we go?” to which grammatically ambiguous utterance the proper response is either “yes,” “no,” or “you ran over my foot, you fartmonster, come back here so I can knock you off that miserable excuse for a mode of transportation.”{7} There are always boda-boda around if you want one.

We hired two boda-boda drivers near the top of our hill to go into the city, haggling to a price of about $2 per.{8}
 And then we went. I learned an important thing early on, which is that my vertigo mostly kicks in when I'm in vehicles with little evident protection against falling out that start from a dead stop on rough terrain. Thankfully, in stop-and-go rush hour traffic in a country where saying that a road is paved only kinda means the same thing as it does in the States, and on a 1980s vintage motorcycle, that was not a problem at all.

{7} For those interested in the linguistic peculiarities of the vulgate of English spoken in Uganda (...Buehler? Buehler?), they probably say “we go” instead of something longer because in Luganda, the mother tongue of this region and therefore most of the boda drivers, the difference between the statement “we go/we are going” and the question “shall we go?/let's go?” is one barely-audible vowel, which feature goes a long way to explaining the somewhat convoluted question-structure of many Ugandans when speaking English.**
{8} More or less standard, I've been told, although I'm sure a small non-negotiable “muzungu tax” was included in the total.

A boda ride works like this. You sit down, wedge your feet up against the little
steel struts that pass for passenger footrests. And before you have accomplished this, the boda will have accelerated to a speed just above the level you personally are comfortable with, which speed it will maintain until you reach your destination. On the way, if you aren't terrified, you can have a conversation with the driver. Useful phrases include: “would you please slow down,” “drive more carefully, please,” “try not to hit that taxi, dear sir,” and “I promise I'll pay you extra if I don't die.”{9}

{9} But actually, some of them are fascinating and will have lots of interesting stuff to talk about.

It was sometime before discovering that four-phrase dictionary that I made another finding of life-giving importance: all boda-boda have a little curved metal bar sticking up right behind the seat. It's not high enough to rest your back against, but you can hold it as a safeguard against feeling like you're about to fall off the back (which you aren't).{10}
 And hold it I did, until my knuckles were white. The primary reason for this is that “traffic splitting” is far too euphemistic and neutral to describe what a boda-boda does. I mean, I'm not complaining—it's far less verbose and terrifying than “cuts at 60 kph in front of that taxi that doesn't look pleased one bit and then slides in a gap you didn't think existed between two trucks and oh Jesus that's the sidewalk that he's going up on please don't hit any small children”; I'd just have liked a little more specificity before my first ride.

My boda driver, however, did try his best. That much is clear with potholes, which dot the few paved roads here like polka dots dot a polka-dotted dress.{11}
 He attempted to swerve around them in order to avoid jostling my delicate foreign posterior, and often succeeded. The fact that he only “often” succeeded has convinced me that, in fact, sometimes someone's best just isn't good enough.

{10} I have since figured out how to stay on without holding it.
{11} We're not going to talk about unpaved roads, which are red dirt unencumbered by flatness, consistency, or navigability. 

Nonetheless, I stepped off that ride a converted boda fiend. And learned immediately afterward that the travel website had been right to warn me about boda drivers with helmets, like the man who took me for my second ever ride. I spent the entire ride using one or another of the above 4-sentence phrasebook on communicating with your boda driver. And stepped off and had the shakes for half an hour. Never again.

Never again.

* I had just learned about the speed of sound and airplanes that could exceed it and was quite fascinated by this idea
** An analysis of the more-than-somewhat convoluted sentence-structure of my writing will have to await a more qualified expert.


  1. We call them boda bodas here too. And it's actually a safer alternate to the other mode of public transportation available..

  2. You know, I still haven't been able to read this post. Maybe once you are home...