Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 2

With our 4x4 on its way to a garage, we hired a taxi in the small town of Karuma, which lies on the Victoria Nile and well known for its gaping falls which shares the same name. As we crossed the river in the dark, we could hear the rush of the water over the rocks and make out a few bent side posts along the bridge where fortunate vehicles were saved from a fatal plunge. During the daytime, white and black colobus monkeys and baboons flank the overpass in search for a snack thrown from bus windows. As we reached the other side, I scanned the trees for any pair of small eyes reflecting our headlights. Exhausted from sitting along the road in the equatorial sun all afternoon, my European counterparts and I kept conversation to a minimum in the car.

Considering the many broken down highways in Uganda, the one from Kampala to Gulu is in very good shape, meaning that it's for the most part paved and has fewer potholes per kilometer than the average. That being said, it still suffers one of the most dangerous characteristics with which all Ugandan thoroughfares are afflicted, the hourglass affect. Though technically cars are supposed to drive on the left side of the road here, in practice, drivers navigate their vehicles wherever the road poses the least damage to them. Thus, when both sides of a street have eroded away, all cars gravitate towards the middle, like sand in an hourglass. If cars traveling in the opposite direction don't time this maneuver to the center just right, it can be a disaster.

About an hour into our drive, the only noise in our taxi was the debate between two local politicians on the radio over the rattle of a loose muffler. Ahead of our car, I saw two pair of headlights coming towards us. I looked down at the road and saw it become an hourglass. I anticipated only another close call, like they always have been. So I turned to look out my front passenger window. A few seconds later, I heard the swish of a lorry passing by, then a brightness began filling our taxi, which forced me to shift my gaze back to the middle of the road. Within a second, the light transformed into a loud scratching noise, mixed with shouting from the back seat, as our car was thrust to the side of the road.

Like birds chirping, all passengers began uttering "Everyone okay, everyone okay?" We stepped out of the car. Margriet's door was bent inwards, the rear wheel was completely destroyed, and Sophie got a sore shoulder, but otherwise no harm done. The van that hit us continued without stopping. Hit and runs are common practice here, especially since so few cars have insurance. Our driver inspected his taxi briefly before flagging down another vehicle to chase down the van responsible for all this. Catching the other driver was his only chance of getting any compensation.

With the driver gone, we 4 mzungus stood in the ditch next to our busted taxi as silhouettes of villagers started collecting on all sides. The van hadn't completely knocked the car off the road, so with the help of 10 local men, we lift the car off the tarmac and onto the dirt rubble. We rang Akra to send us another taxi from Karuma, but a half hour later we got a phone call that the car he had hired was also involved in some incident. At this point a little Toyota 4x4 stopped to check on us. Inside the vehicle was a woman from Germany traveling with her Ugandan husband and a friend. They picked up Sophie and Margriet and brought them to Gulu, while Bjorn and I stayed behind waiting for the second car that Akra had requested for us.

Our party reduced two, the village boys felt a little more comfortable approaching us to play the name game. "What's your name?" "Mike." "Bjorn." "I'm Moses." A handshake and laughter all around. "Mine is Joseph." Again a handshake, and an uproar of giggling from the circle of silhouettes. The older boys would push the younger ones forward, encouraging them to be bold and make a mzungu friend. The little ones would stretch their hand outs, say their names, and then retreat behind their larger colleagues. After 30 minutes of introducing ourselves and reintroducing ourselves, our ride came.

20 kilometers later, we arrived in Gulu and were warmly welcomed by my old friends at the Acholi Ber. A trip that should have taken 4 hours, took 15. Mark, the hotel manager, arranged a new driver to pick us up in the morning. Next stop, Juba...

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