At the outset, let me just say that I loved, absolutely loved, Kampala. There is something incredibly bad ass and nerve rackingly cool about doing even the most mundane things in the heart of Africa. Things like riding a boda boda or walking through a busy market. The vulture sized Marabou Storks flying overhead, or sitting on a branch, pecking on a piece of its kill, while the city traffic zoomed underneath is a picture of contrast that needs some getting used to.
Walking the streets, you could feel the hustle that is ubiquitous to any booming capital city of today. It is home to expats from China, India, Western and neighbouring African countries. Banks, businesses, ugly glass buildings, impatient people heading to or from work, this is where work gets done and decisions are made.
I had two days in the city before I went on the safari, so I had to pull up my socks and get started almost as soon as the caffeine of my morning black coffee kicked in.
First order of business. The famed Muammar Gaddafi mosque bang in the middle of the city. The story goes, Idi Amin ran out of funds while building the mosque, so he sent a delegation to Libya to ask for financial help. Gaddafi, in all his generosity, agreed instantly but with the condition that he will make the mosque right from the ground up. And he did a bloody good job. The mosque is easily the most attractive landmark in Kampala. In fact the Ugandans appreciated the help and gesture so much that they named it after him. Not just the mosque, but also the busy road leading up to it.
It was hard to figure why I was the only visitor that day to a mosque that big and grand. But thankfully, my guide at the mosque, Yusuf had the keys to the minarets and the main hall.
“How many times a day do you climb this minaret?” I asked, stopping to gasp for breath as we climbed the winding steps of one of the minarets.
“About 10 times a day.” He said smiling. “Don’t stop, we are almost at the top.”
The view from the top of the minaret, with the city of Kampala spread out before me, was breath taking. The markets, the hills in the distance, the old colonial buildings, government offices, the red earth and the busy roads leading up to the mosque. The climb was totally worth it.
“You see that building?” Yusuf said as he pointed at a small shoebox shaped house. “That was the first house the British built when they came here.”
“And that, the building on that hill, is where the British met the leaders of different factions to resolve their disputes and maintain peace in the city.”
The top of the minaret was the perfect vantage point and Yusuf went around the circular balcony pointing out the landmarks of the city. The Nakasero Market, the parliament, the Bahai temple and the like.
The main hall of the mosque was big enough to accommodate 15000 worshippers. The chandeliers were some of the biggest and most elaborate pieces of décor I had seen. A mammoth copy of the Quran, bound in thick colourful hard cover rested on a wooden rehal in the front. Yusuf flipped through the old brown pages and recited a couple of verses from it in his deep, soulful voice. As the verses of the holy Quran echoed through the room, it was not difficult to imagine what it must be like when the hall and its gallery is teeming with thousands of devout worshippers.
As we walked down the stairs after the visit, I asked him what he wants to do after his internship at the mosque is over.
“I want to work at the council here.” He said.
One of the things I loved the most about Uganda are the boda boda rides through straight hilly roads. If you are one of the main roads leading up to the mosque, you could see the road laid out in front of you, going up and down, left and right, like one of those heart-stopping roller coaster rides. As the boda boda picks up speed and twists and turns its way through the busy traffic of the road, the adrenaline rush, of part excitement and part anxiety, is something that is unique to the city.
The next stop was the Uganda National Museum. It is not the most impressive of museums but it had some interesting displays of traditional clothes, weapons and thrones of the early Ugandan kings and tribal warlords, travel stories of the first western explorers to the country, dioramas of various animals and birds found in the continent including the beautiful Crested Crane, the national bird of the country that also finds itself proudly posing on the Ugandan flag.
The hostel I was staying at, Fat Cat Backpackers, was very well located. It is only a few steps away from the Acacia mall and there are lots of shops and restaurants around. Though the hostel didn’t serve food, apart from breakfast, there was this restaurant nearby where I went a few times. (Forgot the name, sadly)
The Manager of the restaurant was, Mohan, a man from India, Andheri to be exact. On my first visit, he indirectly warned me that the African food plate I was ordering was not up to Indian taste.
“Are you sure? We have Indian food also.” He asked as I ordered the Ugandan platter.
Though I liked the curry, vegetables and the chicken, I couldn’t finish Ugali. It was a sticky, gooey, tasteless heap of floury awfulness.
“Do you want some roti?” He asked me, as he took away my plate after the meal.
“No, thanks. Can I have a Nile Special though?”
He smiled and few moments later brought a chilled bottle of Nile Special beer. We had a little conversation while I drank and came to know that he had come to Kampala 8 years ago. He lived there with his wife and two daughters.
“I miss Mumbai, but we are happy here.”
“Do you go back often?”
“I went back 5 years ago for a week when my mother passed away.”
He told me the national park I was going to for safari was nice and I can rest assured that, unless I was really unlucky, I would see a few of the Big Five.
As I left, he was told me to contact him in case I needed help and gave me his visiting card.
(I was surprised how nice he was to me just because I was also an Indian. Why can’t we be a little nicer to each other here in India?)
For most of the next day, I lazed around the hostel, drank several cups of coffee at a café near the mall, took walks around the neighbourhood, and contemplated whether I should take the malaria medicine, given the side effects it could cause.
I remember going to a pharmacy after lunch to find out if it was safe to take the medicine. A second opinion can’t hurt, I thought.
The lady at the counter looked at me like I was an idiot.
“It is safe.”
“What about all the side effects? Kidney failure? Fever? Suicidal thoughts?” I read out from the note that came in the medicine box.
“Don’t worry. You will be safe.” She said, clearly supressing a laugh.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Not everyone who takes the medicine gets these side effects.” She said, giggling.
That afternoon, I took a boda boda ride to the Owino market, which is one of the biggest markets in the city. The driver cautioned me about the pick pocketers and scam artists as he dropped me off.
Owino market is probably the most intimidating markets I have been to in terms of scale. Cars jammed the road honking continuously as black smoke gushed out from the exhaust, people choosing t-shirts and jeans from mountain sized heap of clothes by the road side, counterfeit watches and electronics were on offer. Fruits, vegetables and street snack vendors blocked the sidewalks. It is nothing like I had ever seen before.
I bargained for a Ugandan football team jersey that I had seen a lot of locals wearing proudly. Sadly, we couldn’t strike a deal but the shopkeeper offered me some questionable drink that I had to politely decline.
“No money. Free drink.” He insisted. It was in a steel glass, a transparent liquid with a very strong smell.
“Alcohol?” I asked.
He nodded yes, with a suspicious grin.
“What is it called?”
“Drink. Drink. No Problem.”
Part of me really wanted to try it. But the other part was just scared of blacking out and then waking up to find myself in a ditch somewhere.
Since I had booked the safari with them, Red Chillies Kampala was nice to offer me a free night at their hostel on the outskirts of the city. So, the next day afternoon, after waking up without the side effects of the malaria medicine (Thank God for that), I took a boda boda to the meeting point from where their minibus picked me up.
The hostel was about an hour’s drive, through the busy city roads. Riding shotgun, the driver and I talked through the journey until finally we reached the lavishly built property. It had a swimming pool, a well-stocked bar and restaurant, spacious common areas and a terrace with an amazing view of the vast, mostly empty landscape and shores of Lake Victoria in the distance. What more can a cheap backpacker want!
One of the staff members came looking for me as I enjoyed the quiet sunset from the terrace that evening. “Are you Arr…”
“Arpan. Yes, that’s me.”
“Sorry, your name is so difficult.” She smiled. “You will be leaving at 6.00 am tomorrow for the safari. The guide will be waiting at the reception. Please don’t be late.”
Sitting under the starry sky that evening, as cool breezes brought in some respite after a hot and humid day, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad about leaving Kampala the next morning.