“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”-Cesare Pavese
“Did you hear the news?”
We stop walking. “What news?”
Wide-eyed, the waitress stares at us. “The top prosecutor in the Al-Shabaab trial was shot dead in Kampala last night.”
My companion, the owner of the lodge I’ve been staying at, turns to me. “We are not going to Kampala. The city is going to riot today, it’s not safe for us.”
The waitress continues: “The prosecutor that was murdered is the one that’s trying the 13 men that are accused of killing 76 people in 2010.“
“Ah yes – I remember, the ones that died were the ones that were watching the World Cup final,” says the lodge owner.
I stand there, barely hearing them now my thoughts roaring, filled with the same horrific images I saw on the news just a few days ago. I still can’t get the one image out of my head – a woman slumped over a white plastic picnic table after one of the bombs went off.
The awful details keep coming. “Last night the prosecutor was shot twice by two men on a motorbike as she drove home with her three children. They shot her through the window of her car after she stopped to buy fruit on the side of the road.”
Something in me snaps. OK. Too much. I’m done. I want out.
Without thinking or saying a single word I turn and sprint past the gate and off the property. I have nothing to pick up. I have everything on my back. The lodge owner was taking me to the middle of Kampala, dropping me off at the FED Ex office so I could collect my newly-arrived passport – but to hell with that plan. Today’s news has cancelled his involvement, which is fine, he was moving way too slow anyway.
It’s pouring down buckets of rain and I can’t get any traction on the muddy road, but I keep going. I don’t weigh the danger, I don’t think about the horrific news story I just heard. Somehow (I don’t know how) I just push it all completely out of my brain and I lock myself into my mission for the day.
I just want my passport and I want it now.
I’ve been stuck in Uganda for 40 days and I can’t take it any longer. The heartbreak, the terrorist threats, the oppressive negativity, it’s all becoming too much to handle. So it’s time to go.
I splash my way through the village to the main road in Kitende, and then I stick my arm out and hail a mini bus. By the time one stops, I’m totally sodden. I cram into the middle seat in the second row and wring out the tail of my shirt. We wait alongside the road for a few minutes until every inch of the mini bus is filled with either a person or a live chicken, and then we sputter away.
I start to map out how I’m going to get through Kampala’s streets quickly; I’ve already spent a month in the city so by now I know the seven hills the city is built on pretty well.
The mini bus takes Entebbe Road right into the heart of Kampala, and I jump off while the bus is still moving at the Jinja Road junction. Then I wave down a boda-boda. These bikes are the most popular way to get around the city (you’ll find hundreds on offer), but they come with a cost. They are usually poorly maintained and really dangerous. Plus, I know that if I get on the back of one I will be out in the open, like a big American flag flapping in the wind, and based on the news reports that’s just asking trouble.
But this is about speed. They can maneuver quickly through the insane gridlock that fills the downtown streets and as I look at my watch, time is clearly of the essence. I have less than an hour to get everything I need. If I take a taxi, I will never make it to the embassy on time.
We shoot off through the rain in the direction of my request. I need to go to an ATM, and the Oasis Mall has one that I know will work (Side note: not all ATMs in Africa work, one in Tanzania ate my ATM card for no reason at all).
Within minutes we pass by the Ugandan High Court and take Nile Avenue towards the Uganda Golf Course, then pull up to the entrance of the mall…
And the breath whooshes out of me.
Uganda’s riot control unit is out in full force. There are fifty soldiers in light blue fatigues and armored trucks positioned around the mall’s perimeter. Each soldier has a steely look in his eyes, and a machine gun in his hands.
I think back to the warning that was on the news a few days ago, “Al-Shabaab is planning and attack where Westerners are known to congregate.”
Panic rushes through me. It all seems to make sense. Al-Shabaab actually struck last night, they are the ones that killed the prosecutor. They really are in Kampala. And although she wasn’t an American, it’s close enough for my panicked brain. Maybe I should have listen to the warnings. Maybe the lodge owner, seemingly so obsessed with doom & gloom, wasn’t being so paranoid after all. Maybe he was right.
From where we are parked I can see the café I’d frequently visited. Usually I have a hard time finding a seat inside, but today it’s completely empty. Yeah. No.
I hop off the bike, run into a bank, grab the money I need, and leap back onto the boda-boda…
“Old Port Bell Road!”
The driver is good; he races through the rain towards the Fed-Ex office like he was born on this bike. Every time our bald tires slip against the wet pavement, he gives the bike its head, then nudges it back on track. It’s quite the performance.
But no matter how good of a driver he is, we can’t find the Fed-Ex office.
Since I was there six weeks ago, they’ve moved location. I only know this because the day I dropped my passport off I was so nervous about making sure I filled out all the postal paperwork right that I asked for the manager’s email and phone number, and when I phoned him this morning, he told me they’d moved. What are the chances?
We zig and zag across the industrial side of town but no matter how hard we look we just can’t find the new office. I look at my watch, its already 11:30, and I know time is running out.
I point down an abandoned street and just as we are about to fly past the store I see a tiny Fed-Ex logo out of the corner of my eye.
The manager is expecting me. I quickly thank him and pay the fee for my package (it “randomly” got stopped by customs so I had to pay duties, taxes and a clearing charge). Dumping the contents into my backpack, I hop back on the boda-boda and we fishtail through the mist towards the Kenyan embassy.
It’s not where I thought it was. It’s not where my driver thought it was. It’s not there.
The driver has to ask for directions five different times; each time we stop, I feel like Al-Shabaab is closing in on me. I’m a mess. I’m looking over each shoulder like my head is on a swivel. This is crazy.
Eventually a security guard outside Independence Park points us in the right direction. I see the red, green and black colors of the Kenyan flag waving from a few blocks away and we pull underneath it at 11:57. Kenyan security guards at the front gate ask me to leave my backpack with them but before I do I reach inside and grab my passport and the letter my parents put inside the Fed-Ex package.
By the time I clear the metal detector and the body search area and make it to the consulate office it is exactly 12:00.
As I frantically fill out the paperwork that’s required for the visa, I realize I don’t have everything I needed in order to get the visa. What? No! I forgot to stop and exchange my shillings for dollars and to get an extra passport photo. I must have blanked those details out when I saw the riot police outside the Oasis mall.
I stop writing and slam the pen down. “You have got to be kidding me!”
Exhaustion. Exasperation. Fear. My clothes are damp and soggy and they feel like they weigh a thousand pounds. Silence. No – drip, drip, drip. I cut my arm while darting around today so I can’t actually tell if what’s rolling off my body and onto the ground is my blood, my sweat, or tears of frustration.
I sink to my lowest point. I have officially given everything I’ve got to make this journey work, but that’s it – I’m admitting defeat. The white flag is officially raised. It’s just too damn hard to get across Africa, with all these problems, combined with the way I’m doing things.
I announce my resignation to everyone within earshot of the waiting room. “I quit!”
No longer would I need to push and will myself past every single setback, and I’m finding some compensation in the fact that I can just flip my brain back to auto-pilot and resume coasting through life. Things would be so much easy that way. It’s almost a relief.
But only almost.
Feeling bitter and angry, I lean forward and flip through my passport – and as I do so something falls out of it and flutters onto the floor. It’s a tiny piece of paper about the size of a stamp, I reach for it and as I pull it closer to me, I realize – it’s me.
It’s an extra passport photo.
I can’t believe it; it must have gotten lodged inside my passport when I sent it back to the United States over a month ago.
My attention immediately turns to the letter my parents sent me. It’s resting on my lap, and hope flares inside of me. What if they had..?
I don’t even know why I grabbed it out of my backpack in the first place; security specifically said I could only take my passport inside the Kenyan embassy. My fingers pull the envelope open – and US Dollars spill out. My Dad stuffed some money in the letter just in case I needed it for an emergency – an emergency just like this. I count it. It’s just enough to cover the cost of the Kenyan visa.
I lower my white flag. No – I burn it. If I was looking for a sign, well, that was it. I’m meant to keep going.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.