Kampala: First Impressions

I braced myself for impact as the plane continued its descent. It looked as if it was about to plunge into Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and home to the infamous Nile crocodiles, which, I heard, got tired of their fish diet and have developed a taste for human flesh.
“Nice view of Lake Victoria, eh?” My South Sudanese seatmate distracted me from my morbid thoughts. “The first time I landed in Entebbe, I thought we were going to crash into the water,” he added with a grin.
“Oh, aren’t we?”
Before he could answer, I heard the faint thump of the wheels hitting solid ground.
“Whew! That was close,” I mumbled in relief.
I could’ve sworn that plane was headed for the plunge!

“First time in Uganda?”
“Yeah.”
“You’ll enjoy it here. Why don’t we meet up? Here’s my number and e-mail address. We could go out one night. You shouldn’t miss out on Kampala’s nightlife. The best in East Africa.”
Uganda, here I was. The girl from the Pearl of the Orient (the Philippines) had landed in the Pearl of Africa. And I couldn’t help making a few comparisons. Unlike the airports in Manila and Cebu, there wasn’t so much passenger traffic, so getting through immigration was a breeze. The smiling Ugandan immigration official was warm and accommodating, and even chatted me up while he prepared my visa—getting one on arrival is easy and hassle free (50 USD for single entry as tourist for 30 days)—and stamped my passport. Perhaps his grumpy and often hostile Philippine counterparts can take a lesson or two from him.
Once Immigration was cleared I proceeded to pick my luggage and walked through the green lane since I didn’t have goods to declare. The red lane was for passengers who had to go through Customs. In a few steps, I was out of the airport, looking out for Dilman, who rescued me from the one or two taxi drivers who followed me around. 
We then took a private taxi for 7,000 Ugandan shillings (UGX) or about 2.5 USD for a five-minute ride to Entebbe town where we hopped on a public taxi called matatu (the Toyota Hi-ace type) for a one-hour ride to Kampala (2,500 UGX per person). It might have been less than an hour, though, because the driver was confidently cruising the narrow and heavily trafficked highway at 100-120kph, breezing past other smoke-belching matatus and an overturned Corolla at the side of the road. He must have been an ambulance, if not racecar, driver before he found his true calling as king of the road.
Authentic African matatu experience.
Nevertheless, we reached Kampala in one piece. And just before I could recover from the drag race, Dilman announced we needed to take another matatu to get to his place—another hour’s journey! Anyway, as we hiked up the road towards the taxi park, a commotion broke out at the roadside. Apparently, a thief was caught red handed in one of the shops and the people took justice in their own hands, beating him up and stripping him of his clothes. A group of police men tried to secure order by beating on the mob with sticks and kicking motorcycles (whatever the motorcycles did to deserve such cruelty). Not something you see every day.
Kampala—the city of gentle people.
Kampala seems to be underdeveloped for a capital city. Of course, it is much better than Juba or even Addis Ababa in terms of modernity, but it pales compared to Nairobi. I was looking out for the infamous potholes and it didn’t take me long to spot them. And a pothole here, and a pothole there, everywhere a pothole . . . ee ai ee ai oh! I remember a Ugandan friend once joked that you can see tributaries of Lake Victoria right in the center of Kampala. I guess he was right, and for a moment there I actually thought I saw a Nile perch pop out of the mini-lake in the middle of the road.
Potholes and smoke-belching vehicles aside, there is one thing that makes Kampala special—the people. They are the friendliest, most hospitable and polite bunch I’ve ever met in East Africa. While I was treated to indifference and coldness in the streets of Nairobi, and rude “You! You!” and endless begging in Addis Ababa, in Kampala I felt welcomed. While I constantly feared of getting mugged in Nairobi or my breasts groped in Addis Ababa, I felt very safe in Kampala that I actually enjoyed walking along dark deserted streets at 10 PM.
For a weary traveler, that makes a lot of difference. If I had to choose between a picturesque place and a genuine smile, I’d go for the latter.

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13 Comment

  1. Jenn says: Reply

    I hope you enjoy your stay there–thanks for taking us on a little journey!! Cheers, Jenn

  2. I love the narrative, your style of writing is a must-follow and coupled with a mysterious city like Kampala, I'm sure to follow your Uganda series.

  3. Wow, Uganda! Can't wait to read ur succeeding post about this place 🙂

  4. admin says: Reply

    Thanks, Jen. Will keep you posted of my little adventures. 🙂

    Marky, I feel humbled to be followed by a seasoned traveler/blogger like you.

    Barok, I will post the next entry pretty soon. Thanks.

  5. Iwaya says: Reply

    LOL! It's like you 'experienced' what is 'typical' of Kampala almost all in the space of 2 hours of being in Kampala!

  6. admin says: Reply

    @Iwaya: Can I say I'm lucky then? Hahaha! But really, it's not difficult to like Kampala. Will be back soon. 🙂

  7. AJ says: Reply

    What an opening salvo! Love the build-up. Plus, I've not read anything about Uganda that didn't mention Idi Amin. The driving and the street mob may as well be Manila, or Pasay, haha! I'm hooked! Looking forward to the next entries. 🙂

  8. admin says: Reply

    But, AJ, you will read something about Idi Amin in my next posts. But there's one personality that is so much more colorful than Amin: Museveni. Will write about him too. 🙂

  9. I love your writing style! Makes me feel like I'm actually with you, traveling 🙂

  10. I have never visited Kampala but I got a taste for it after reading your blog. I laughed at the potholes because that is so typical of most African countries 🙂 Nice post!

  11. admin says: Reply

    Thanks, Jonna. I'm glad I'm taking you for a ride. 🙂

    Nelieta, oh yeah, potholes make travelling a lot more exciting in Africa, as long as we have healthy backs and very strong bladders. 🙂

  12. Jim says: Reply

    Hi Reiza, in these countries I'm glad to see potholes, as they act like speed bumps to keep traffic speeds down. Fill them in, give locals wide smooth highways and you have to put speed bumps in. Potholes are cheaper…except those huge ones where buses disappear…

  13. admin says: Reply

    Hahaha! That makes sense, Jim. Potholes are indeed a more practical way of checking traffic speeds. However, sometimes the cars move to slow they cause traffic jams!

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