“Sounds like a party in there,” I smiled at the female officer at the desk. I was referring to the noise coming from the holding cells.
“They are suspects celebrating the primary elections we just had,” she said, smiling back.
Gypsy Queen and I explained our want of pitching our tent somewhere safe and the officer passed the word around. The station chief wasn’t there yet but having made contact with him over the phone we were told that, “He won’t allow you to pitch a tent here. It is not safe due to the primary elections.”
Across the road I spied the silhouette of a church. I’ve never slept in a church and I figured that they couldn’t refuse our request to pitch our tent on their grass. The female officer hiked over on our behalf and came back saying, “The reverend says it is not safe to pitch there.”
“Listen,” I began and told how I’ve been sleeping in, “Police stations from Namibia all the way to Kenya. Never had a problem. We just want to pitch our tent and go to sleep.”
An hour later an officer in a white uniform said we could sleep in the traffic police office. “Even me, I’m sleeping here tonight.”
The room had two desks and floor space for a snail. There were colourful and highly graphic images on the wall of horrific accidents and what a human body looks like after its been run over.
The Gypsy Queen looked at me. “Lovely,” she said.
“We’d really just rather pitch our tent,” I said to the officer.
Ten minutes later the station chief appeared with an entourage of officers. One was in full riot gear and the only officer I’ve ever met who didn’t smile. He looked at us as though we were political prisoners.
“How can you travel without money?” he questioned, pointing fingers accusingly. “I have been in Kampala and have dealt with foreigners but never heard of this travel method.”
He simply couldn’t get it through his thick, riot helmet that our lifestyle was real and able.
“I play music in exchange for food and bed,” I explained for the umpteenth time, frustrated, tired and just craving sleep.
“Prove that you are a musician,” demanded the station chief.
I sighed and pulled out Ol’ Red. As I tuned her we were suddenly surrounded by 15 cops. I looked over at the Gypsy Queen. “What should I play?” I asked. As she pondered it hit me. “Folsom Prison Blues?”
She laughed. “The irony will be lost on them.”
I ripped out a country-rock version of Johnny Cash’s classic which had everyone staring at me with one officer even dancing a bit. Our riot-geared interrogator still wasn’t convinced and demanded to see our passports. Neither he nor the station chief could understand how the Gypsy Queen’s Canadian passport could have been issued in Kenya when in fact, she was originally from India.
“If you went to Australia,” I explained with extreme patience, “and your passport expired, you would then go to the Ugandan embassy to renew it. On the passport it will say, ‘Issued in Australia’. OK?”
He nodded as the riot-gear officer demanded we call Ruganzu in Kampala to prove our existence.
“We don’t have a phone,” I said.
He almost fainted from shock. “How do you communicate?” he asked menacingly.
“Internet,” the Gypsy Queen said and I hoped we weren’t going to have to explain the ways of the world-wide-web.
He continued to interrogate us and even demanded that we call GQ’s parents in India.
“I do not want to bother them,” she said, maintaining an impressive calmness about her. “It is very late over there now.”
“So nobody knows you are here?” his shifty eyes narrowed, a dodgy scheming happening behind them making me jump in with,
“My website has a vast audience. There are more than a thousand people around the world who know exactly where we are.” I stared him down. He was about to say something I probably would have ignored when his commanding officer told him and two other cops trying to intimidate us to get in the car and respond to a call.
After they left I approached the officer. “Listen, its late, we just want to put up our tent and go to sleep. In the morning, we are gone before the sun comes up. Please?”
The officer smiled. He looked at one of his goons. “Search their bags thoroughly, then they can go to sleep in the traffic police office,” he said before he headed off to cool down the post-election celebrations in town. “And keep their passports with Major. They can collect them in the morning.”
If there’s one thing I hate, is handing over my passport. Especially to police. Especially to police in a country run by a dictator.
“Who is Major?” I asked around. A small man in a black leather jacket wearing a police beret smiled at me. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Major,” he smiled. “You just call me Major.”
The whole scene was beginning to feel like something out of a bad movie in which our heroes end up thrown in an African jail. I wouldn’t have minded having our bags searched as we had nothing to hide.
Well, except for a small joint. The Gypsy Queen was hiding it, I just didn’t know where. So just when we thought our long day was over, here we were, getting our bags thoroughly searched at 22:30. Knowing what could happen, adrenaline was rushing through me. I was wide awake now.
“Look,” I said, exhausted already from the emotional torment these cops were putting us through. “We just want to get some sleep and go in the morning. You searching our bags is gonna take an hour.”
“30 minutes,” smiled the search-conducting officer. “Please, place your bag on the counter.”
I placed my big, Northridge Nomad 65 pack on the counter and took off the rain cover.
“Please, untie the tent,” the officer continued to grin, “and unpack it.”
For fuck’s sake, “It’ll take forever to pack it back,” I complained.
Never, in the two and a half years that I’ve been on the road, have I been searched by police whenever I’d ask to sleep in the station. Heck, I’ve never even been searched at borders. And it was times like these that I wished I had more than one pair of used underwear for the police to rummage through.
I leaned over to GQ. “Maybe you should go to the toilet?” I suggested, hoping that my meaning would be taken by her. It was.
“No, I’m OK,” she said calmly.
When my bags were repacked, the female officer stepped up. In Africa, a woman is not allowed to be searched by a man. The thing is, our female police officer flipped from the smiling, warm inviting look we were greeted with to something along the lines of the Grim Reaper about to cart off another soul.
With me, only my bags were searched. With GQ, she got the full treatment, just shy of a cavity search.
While she was being searched, the officer who searched me began to beat two prisoners – suspects – that were sitting by the counter. He beat them with a smile on his face.
I was trying to figure out a way that, in case they found the joint, what explanation we could give.
“OK, you can go,” the female officer suddenly smiled.
I blinked as GQ gathered her bags and looked at me with, “You coming?” and headed down the hall.
“How?” I began. “I don’t… I mean, how? Where?”
She grinned. “While you were being searched I managed to grab the little pouch and sneak into my underwear. She just missed it when she patted me down.”
I breathed out long and hard. “Jesus,” I reflected on the two close calls I’ve had when it came to drugs in Africa – my arrest in Zanzibar (talked out of) and GQ’s and mine getting an attempted extortion on a rooftop in Nairobi (had to protect the would-be extortionists from GQ). But here? In the cop shop? Nothing is impossible but I’m sure we would have had some extreme difficulty to get out of this one had it gone left instead of right.
I laid out my sleeping bag, then placed our bed sheet on top, then two gamchas that the Gypsy Queen had brought from her recent trip to India, my kikoy, a cotton blanket and we covered up in my Maasai shuka.
Only three mosquitoes bothered us and, despite the unwanted adventure, we slept pretty well.
In the morning we packed up at sunrise, thanked the officers and bee-lined it to the main road in early morning mist. After 45 minutes I spotted a red-plated government car.
“They never stop,” I said to the Gypsy Queen. “But I’mma try.” I sang out for them and suddenly they pulled over.
Thomas and Eddie were conducting a census count and were happy to take us through the windy roads rolling through the greenest hills I’ve ever seen. Terraced hillsides showed where all the locals were farming their food as cows, goats and sheep lined the roadside. We were dropped off in the town of Kabale where the main road was under construction. We hiked a bit, waving off the boda-bodas and I flagged down an open-bed truck.
Turns out that no one in the area has heard of the small village of Rubuguri. We were taken about 10 K’s down the road and dropped off at the wrong turn-off. Having been corrected by the locals we hit the road with a young woman walking along with us.
“Us, we like white man. They always give us something,” she said repeatedly. I knew what she was hinting at and it was pissing me off. She had her eye on Animal. “Why don’t you give me that doll? I can give it to my son. It will make him very happy.”
“Excuse me,” I said, maintaining a forced calmness. “But the only reason you are talking to us is because all you see is the colour of our skin. You think that because we are not African than it automatically means we are walking cash machines. If you want something from me, you have to first be my friend, earn my respect and then, if I feel like it, then I will give you something. But just from asking? No –” fuckin’ “– way.
We are not white and you are not black,” I preached. “We are human. When you accept that, then we can be friends.”
She laughed, a slight embarrassment about her. Then she eyed Animal again. “Why don’t you give me that doll? I can give it to my son. It will make him very happy. White man always gives us something. Make us very happy.”
I huffed as the Gypsy Queen signaled me to ignore her and we plodded on. A car came down the road and, although it was a taxi, was gracious enough to take us to the next village where some men asked us if we were footing it.
“Yes,” GQ said and the men almost fell over themselves with laughter.
“Never gets old,” I grinned as I flagged down the oncoming AMREF Landcruiser that took us to the turnoff to Rubuguri. We had a 20 K hike before us unless a vehicle came along. Within five minutes two trucks rattled up behind us.
The blue one took us on in the open tray which we shared with four guys.
“Are you on your way to work?” GQ asked them.
They nodded and smiled as we bounced along the red track, valleys, terraced hillsides and pine trees escorted us to where we were dropped off, 7 K’s from Rubuguri. Shaken, rattled and rolled we began to hike along the dirt track. Within 15 minutes a young American couple drove up and took us to Wagtail lodge where we met Gordon and Ben, the two guys who help Jo and Erin with the NGO Footsteps Through Africa.
We were to become their first volunteers.