The day begins badly. I miss the bus by five minutes. What is unclear is whether this was the 6:00 am bus leaving 45 minutes late, or the 7:30 bus leaving 45 minutes early. That’s the way with public transportation in Uganda. Schedules only approximate reality. After being told that the next bus would leave at 8:30 (meaning that it would actually leave between 9:30 and 11:00), I decide to take a minibus taxi, or matatu.
Arriving at the taxi stop I feel relieved to see a taxi almost full, signifying that it might leave within the half-hour. Ah, but bad news awaits me. The usual 10,000 shilling ($4) fare to Mbale is increased to 15,000. Two reasons: 1) it is beginning of term reporting day for students all over Uganda, so the demand for transport to one’s boarding school is high. The bus and taxi companies take advantage of this; 2) heavy rains have flooded the Mbale Road, so a detour will be required. What does detour mean? It means an additional hour over dirt roads.
The matatu is crowded. I sit in a jump seat at the end of a row of seats intended for three people, now accommodating four (and most of their luggage). One hipbone is jammed into the metal door to my left, the other into the hip of the young man to my right. Behind me is another passenger’s knee and an unpadded metal bar in the seat back. Like every other matatu, this one seems to have no shock absorbers. The detour is full of potholes, and every bump exacerbates the pain on my hips and back. Plus, my window won’t open. At least it is morning, so the body odor quotient is low.
Along the way there is a minor accident in the road ahead. Ugandans seem to enjoy nothing more than a good traffic accident. Involved or not, we must stop. Everyone must get out of the taxi, add to the crowd milling around, and join in the argument between the two drivers. Bright side – it presents the opportunity for a “short call” in the bush. On the down side, it represents another 20 minute delay.
From then on, it’s smoother sailing. I arrive in Mbale and almost immediately locate a taxi that can drop me in Jinja. This taxi has tires with tread. They offer me the “queen seat” (as my friend Joanna calls the front passenger seat, where our organizations usually seat the muzungu when we go out to do field work). This seat has an advantage. It is actually the size of about 1 ¾ seats, and you never have to share it with more than one other person. Fortunately, my seatmate is a very thin gentleman.
From Kangulamira, it’s just a quick jaunt to the boat landing. At last, I embark over the Nile to Wildwaters Lodge. The magic begins when you step into the small boat and the boatmen begin rowing upstream. It’s a quick trip to the island, but you are already a world apart from the stresses of Ugandan travel and the cares you leave behind.
In my case, I’m leaving behind what has been unexpected anxiety over my permanent return to the States (in only two weeks). I am longing for home, and have been for two years, but I am also anxious. Anxious about leaving my Ugandan home. Anxious about the decisions ahead. What might the next adventure be? I know that I need to give making these decisions some time. Time to revel in hot water on demand, reliable power, easy transportation, variety in my diet – all of the simple things that no longer seem so simple. I also know that I have Marty to make these decisions with. And Eli and the rest of my family to count on for support. Still, I have no doubt that there will be readjustment.
Wildwaters Lodge surpasses your imagination. An island surrounded by white water and Kalagala Falls. Only 10 canvas-walled cottages. The Nile rushing by within yards of your front deck, where you can soak in the claw-footed tub. The omnipresent sound of the water, accompanied during the day by birds and at night by singing insects and frogs. Great food. Decent wine. Spa services. (Photos on FB soon!) This is worth the splurge, and a great place to relax and reflect on my two years in Uganda.
Somehow Uganda has changed me. What those changes are is hard to describe. I may not know what is lasting until I have been back in the States for some time. Less attachment to “stuff”, more patience, a better appreciation for our life in America, a new view of the world, a different pace to life – what will last and what will disappear after a few weeks of astonishing comfort? Choices and abundance may be overwhelming. Waste will disgust me. Have I forgotten how to shop? Have I indeed become a very bad consumer and lost my addiction to Nordstroms?
There are some new things I can do, but I don’t think that they will count for much. I can travel for a week with only a large daypack. I know how to bucket bathe, soak my vegetables, and treat my drinking water. I can negotiate public transportation in at least three languages and bargain in the marketplace. I won’t panic if a see an elephant in the road. I can ride a bicycle in a skirt, nonchalantly sweep a bat out the door, and eat beans everyday for lunch.
There are also some old things that I fear I won’t be able to do! For 26 months I have not been behind the wheel. Further, I am now used to traffic that drives on the left. My instincts have changed, and they are all wrong. More than once my friends and loved ones will be pulling be out of oncoming traffic because I will be looking for it in the other direction. It took me a few months to get accustomed to Ugandan traffic. I hope that it is not months before I can deal with it in America.
It’s time to invent a new life. In the months between leaving my job and traveling to Uganda I was busy selling a home, moving, and preparing for life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. For two years my life has been in Uganda – with daily routines, concerns, and responsibilities very different than those I had before or will have upon my return. Now it’s time for some decisions. Work or retirement? If I work, part-time or full-time? Doing what? Settle in a new community or travel? Choice is a wonderful thing and I am lucky to have it. I don’t have to do anything. That is indeed a luxury, but a daunting one.
One thing is certain, I will choose those adventures with Marty. The hardest thing about these two years has been doing it alone. Has it been worth it? Probably. Did I make a difference? Maybe. I did teach 2,500 girls about their sexual health. I gave about 100 educators some new ideas about leadership, team building, and planning. Tried to teach the project officers at my organization how to develop and manage a project plan and budget.
I also value what I hope will be life-long friendships, with Ugandans and with other volunteers both American and European. I am so happy that I had the chance to travel with Marty, and with Eli. I’ll never forget climbing into the cab of a Kenyan semi with Carol and Susan. Nor will I soon forget the majesty of elephants and giraffes so close that I could almost touch them, herds of kob in the morning mist on the savannah, sunset on the Indian Ocean, the white sands of Zanzibar, the peace of the village at Kapir, and the smaller delights of everyday in Soroti. I am indeed a lucky one. Lucky to have experienced all of this, and to have slept by the wild waters.