As far as I can tell there are not many traffic laws in Uganda. It seems to me, the walkers have the outer edges of the roadway, then the bikes are right beside them. Just inside the bikes are the bota botas (motorbikes), and next to them the cars. The closest to the middle of the road are the vans, lorries (trucks), and buses. On a normal road that would be five separate lanes on each side of the middle line, in Africa however, there is no middle line, nor are there any lanes. It appears that if someone, say on a bike, wants to pass a slower bike they simply swerve into the bota bota line to go around. No signal, just the swerve. The same holds true for any vehicle along the roadway. When you want to go around, swerve, then back into your line of traffic. The weaving and bobbing across the roadways creates a maddening chaotic pattern in which I feel as if I am about to be tossed into oncoming traffic at every moment. It is best not to watch this ballet. Instead, I prefer to close my eyes, or turn and talk to my companions in the back seat.
It usually takes me a bit after I arrive in country to adjust to being on the “wrong” side of the road. Right turns are the hard ones, left are easy. Roundabouts always take me off guard since they go the opposite direction than what I am used to. I am continually bracing myself for the lean as we enter. Trying to get the vehicle in and then get into position to get out at the right time, reminds me of standing in line as a kid waiting for the jump rope to hit just right, so you could jump into the middle without tripping. As if this were not enough, on the way to the camps we go off the tarmac roadway onto a dirt road. This is where the fun really begins.
If your van has air conditioning, you are one of the lucky ones who get to avoid the dust by keeping your windows rolled up. If your van does not have air conditioning, there are choices you must make all along the way. Do I want to die of heat stroke, or dust inhalation? When the windows are down the wind blows through my hair along with the dust, but when we pass another vehicle the cloud becomes unbearable, so the windows go up, and immediately the temperature climbs 10 degrees. It feels much like being cooked in an oven might feel, stagnant air and high heat. Once the other vehicle has passed, and just when I think I might faint, the windows are opened again.
Along this road there is much rocky ground, big ditches, and crevasses which must be avoided…by swerving. Sometimes when the ground on the opposite side of the road is smoother, the driver goes over to ride in the grooves left by previous vehicles. If there is an oncoming car or truck, using the same grooves, there will be what I like to call a game of African Chicken. Both vehicles want to wait until the last minute to dodge out of each other’s way, so as to use the “smooth” tracks the longest. Never mind, that our driver is actually driving on the opposite side of the road he is supposed to be on, and to get back to our side will require avoiding the walkers, bikes, and bota botas.
We are coming face to face with the oncoming lorry, often filled with bags of some kind, on top of which are a hundred or more people all hanging off the top and sides of the truck. As we make our swerve back to the proper side of the road, the passengers hanging onto the truck wave at us as if nothing has happened. At the same time, there is a near miss of a bota bota. There is a child in front of the man driving it, and a woman with a baby strapped to her back behind him. She also has a bucket on her head of what looks like greens of some kind…maybe to take to market to sell? A cute little family precariously perched onto this motorcycle as if it is the most normal thing in the world to be missed by mere inches. The people in the back seat of our van are saying, “Too close, too close!” which our driver ignores and continues on the way.
If you are in the back of the van, the bumps cause your head to hit the ceiling fairly often. It is not for the easily motion sick to ride back there, you must be strong of stomach and will. In the middle seat, you will be squished together, and someone will be sitting on the crack between seats. The swerves assure that you will know your neighbor very well by the end of the trip. In the front, you must ride with eyes closed to avoid a heart attack.
The van is quite used to the trip. It shakes, rattles, and rolls loudly enough conversation has to be yelled or avoided all together. The music the driver plays over the top of the rattling can range from country to African rap to reggae. No matter the genre, it adds to the general feeling that my ears will explode along the way somewhere.
It often feels as if the van will fall apart at any moment, something you do NOT want to happen on this road. The only thing hotter than this ride would be standing on the side of the road waiting for another van to come to the rescue. One day our engine overheated. We had to keep the windows down the whole way back. Our driver slowed to a snail’s pace, which at any other time I would have welcomed. However, knowing our van was limping towards the finish line had us all praying we could make it back to the tarmac road. Somehow, once we arrived there each day it felt like an accomplishment.
This is the regular daily commute to the camps, for 1 ½ hours one way. Then after teaching at the conference all day we repeat it all for another 1 ½ hours back to the hotel. On the last day when we hit the tarmac, there was great celebration of the fact we had survived approximately 24 hours of total travel time on that road over the course of our conference. If nothing else, it was an achievement for this American. I cannot tell you how rides like this one make me appreciate highways with rules, lanes, lines, pavement, and even orderly traffic. There is no place like home.