Mr Rubbs’ driver dropped us on the Kisoro-Kabale road at the carwash. Sure, sounds exotic, a fun place with scantly-clad folk on rollerskates sipping on chocolate milkshakes with Rose Royce’s, At The Carwash playing in the background with everyone groovin’ to it, suds of soap floating all around.
Well in Africa a carwash is any parking spot you find by the nearest water outlet – be it a lake, river, brook or flash flood puddle. Bodas and cars will park, drivers or whoever gets the coin, whip out scrubbers, soap and wash their vehicle with the determination of removing every speck of oil, grease and dirt.
From the serenity of Lake Bunyonyi that was spread out before us, we hiked around a curve. On our left was a fast-flowing brook. Too our right, rising green hills of terrace farms. And on the road?
Nothing but the asphalt used to tar it.
We were about to set up to make a little video when a Landcruiser came ‘round the bend. It was a flatbed fitting three in the single-cabin – places that were taken up by the driver, Herbert and his two companions.
“If you don’t mind sitting in the back,” he said.
Being it quite the desolate road and with rain about to hit us, the Gypsy Queen and I piled into the back. Herbert drove like one who knows the windy, hilly roads of a rural area – fast. We held on for dear life as our driver tested his brakes about a meter before the speed humps. Rain started to pound us as we drove into it. Luckily, Herbert was going fast enough that the cabin protected us from the wet – until he stopped in a small hillside village to inform us that,
“I wish I could give you some protection from the rain but I don’t have.”
“It’s fine, mate,” I said through the rain drops.
“Just keep driving and we’ll be OK,” added GQ.
He got back in behind the wheel and sped us off. All we could do was hold on tight and watch the entertainment the front seat was providing – the two companions dancing along to the music being blasted from the radio.
About forty minutes later we were dropped in Kabale where a street vendor thought that throwing a live grasshopper at me would scare me. I picked it up and threw it back. We walked to the service station on the outskirts of town. After an hour and a toilet break, a truck pulled over.
“I’m reaching Kampala but I can drop you in Mbarara,” offered Izu.
We took him on and his woes.
“Today I lost both my brothers,” he said mournfully. “I am on the way to Kampala to claim the bodies and arrange the burial.”
“Where are you coming from?” I asked gently.
“Congo,” he said.
“How do you stay awake?”
“I take alcohol.”
I blinked and stared at GQ. “Did he just say he takes alcohol to stay awake?” I whispered to her. She nodded.
I turned back to our driver. “What kind?”
“UG,” he said and pointed at the small plastic soda bottle filled halfway with the clear liquid of the local gin.
Izu was completely sober and was one of the better drives we rode with in Uganda. Yet here he was, sipping on pure grain alcohol to stay awake.
“If I don’t drink, I cannot drive. It helps me function,” he said.
Well I’ll be an apple’s core.
Our aim was to reach Masindi via the back roads but the Universe had other plans for us. While we had passed through Mbarara on the way to Western Uganda our then driver, Peter, informed us of a place we might be able to barter for the night.
As it was just before sunset we asked our drunk (yet sober… how?) driver to drop us at Mazizu Gardens. James, the owner, accepted our barter of music for food and bed and allowed us to pitch a tent at the bottom of his garden.
The manager, Anna, upon seeing the Gypsy Queen, exclaimed, “Are you Indian?”
“Yes I am,” she said proudly.
“I love Indians,” Anna gasped. “I love Indian movies.”
While they traded Bollywood names I sussed out the place. A living-room feel as most local bars have in Africa, the highway rest-stop was empty of clients.
“You’ll let me know when to play?” I said after we ate a meal of rice and beef stew.
“Yes,” said Anna.
GQ and I retired to our tent to chill out when, at around 19:00, James came down to visit.
“I cannot let you stay in the tent. It will rain,” he said.
“We have a rain cover,” GQ indicated our fly.
“No, take a room. You don’t pay. We are happy to help.”
We looked at each other and said our thanks as we began to pack everything up. At 20:30 GQ had passed out on the bed. I stayed awake until 22:00 when music was heard being blasted from the bar area but no one came to collect me for playing. In the morning we thanked James and hit the road.
“Weird,” I said aloud.
“What?” GQ asked.
It was a grey-covered day with drizzles of rain. “We didn’t actually barter anything,” I scratched my head looking up and down the road. We were by a speed hump with plenty of room for cars to stop. But none did. I was staring at the map we had and walked across the road to confirm the road with the driver sitting in a large, tinted SUV.
After a quick chat I returned to GQ. “What did he say?” she asked.
I sighed. “When the driver struggles to figure out how to open his own electronic window, you know the guy barely has a clue about the roads.”
There was a weird vibe in the air. For some reason, tension was building up between us. We were snapping at each other for no reason at all. As no vehicles stopped for us I suggested, “We hike through the town and try on the outskirts. It’ll be easier to avoid the boda-bodas.” GQ agreed and we headed down the road.
There was definitely something about the atmosphere of the place. A shift in the energy field. We said, “Jebaleko,” to the locals with a smile but for the first time since I’ve hit the African continent, no one was responding. Instead we were receiving dirty looks.
Ahead of us, a motorbike with a milk churn strapped on its passenger seat suddenly slid out of control and crashed on the road. Unharmed, the driver got up and a local assisted him. I picked up a piece of motorbike and handed it to him.
A car then stopped for us heading to Kampala. After the usual greetings the driver popped the boot. I was just about to throw in my big pack when the tinted backdoor opened.
“You said you don’t use money?” said the passenger, relaying our answer to the driver who threw the car into gear and drove off, the boot still open, my backpack on one shoulder.
“What the fuck?” I said aloud.
GQ stared at me and blinked. “Imagine if you had put your bag in,” she said.
There was something strange about this place. It was starting to feel like a town in a Stephen King novel. We kept hiking. For a small town it seemed that every car that passed was a taxi. With some of the questions we were being asked, it seemed to be a place low on the IQ demands as one fella proved when he pulled up beside us.
“Come, let’s go. You only pay five thousand,” he said.
“We don’t use money,” I said through clenched teeth as the first five times of telling him that hadn’t gone through his skull.
“How many are you?” the driver then asked.
I had to stop and turn towards him to see if he was for real. “How many do you see?” I asked, GQ hiked on to avoid the conversation.
“Two of you? OK, let’s go. You pay only three thousand.”
There’s a point where you start to just ignore people, especially the stupid ones, otherwise your liable to slap some sense into someone. And I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. We passed by a sign that named the town Bihalrwe. As soon as we passed it the energy shifted. Birds began to sing. The sky cleared up. And when GQ laughed I knew we were back in the good energy field.
“That was weird, aye?” I said to her.
“Yeah, there’s definitely some weird energy going on back there,” she concurred.
A bakkie pulled up behind us. Abraham offered us to sit in the open tray. “I have a tarp to give you in case it rains,” he handed over the blue waterproof material. Already a good vibe, we explained to him the road we were seeking.
“I know it,” he said. “I can drop you there.”
An hour later GQ and I were upgraded to the cabin after Abraham had dropped off a few passengers. She turned to me and said, “I think we passed the road.”
I looked at the map and looked at our surroundings to get a bearing. Yup, we were definitely passed the road and were well on our way to Kampala.
“Why don’t we do this,” she suggested, “let’s head to Kampala, stay the night at Ruganzu’s, then head up to Mbale, from there we’ll head down to Jinja and do the art installation. We skip Masindi. We’re back in January. Maybe we can go then.
What do you think?”
My visa clock was running. GQ, being a Kenyan resident, didn’t have a ticking clock. “I guess we can go to the rhino sanctuary then, if they’ll still have us,” I pondered. “OK, let’s go to Kampala.”
We called up Ruganzu who was more than happy to have us. Settled on a direction, Abraham inspired our vibe by buying us grilled chicken maryland on a skewer hawked off by hawkers surrounding the car like a mob at the backstage of a concert.
“Your husband is beautiful,” exclaimed one hawker.
“What did he say?” I raised an eyebrow.
“He said you are beautiful,” GQ laughed. She turned to him. “What about me? Am I not beautiful?”
“You are,” he said. “But your husband is a very beautiful man.”
Abraham was collecting some delegates from the Entebbe airport. But his last passenger, Moses (the front seat being occupied by Abraham and Moses. Yes, yes.), was getting dropped in Kampala where we parted ways and made our way to the University where Ruganzu was teaching.
I talked with his friend, Frida, over the phone. She had, via one of Ruganzu’s posts on Facebook, invited GQ and I to spend some time at her hostel in Mbale, Sukali. I explained our barter and she agreed on it.
That night we cooked an impressive dinner for Grace, Ruganzu and Freddy. In the middle of the night, Freddy had a bad dream and crawled from his crib into our bed. Snoring lightly as the pigs competed with the rooster over who gets to bring up the sun.