On Both Sides Now: Crossing the Equator

After idling in the empty beaches
and trekking through silent jungles of Ssesse Islands, I declared I had enough
of the quietness and wanted to see the Equator—this time, I wanted some
adventure. So instead of tracing back our uneventful route back to Entebbe from
Kalangala Island, we decided to take another course, backpacker’s style. We
hopped on a boda-boda from the hotel to Kalangala town where a van bound to
Nyendo town—just a few minutes from Masaka where the Equator stands—awaited
us.
I knew we made a bad call once I
realized the driver was going to try to stuff another unsuspecting traveler to
the tangled mess that we were inside that six-seater van that vacuum-packed fifteen
of us. Mr. Driver was not only sitting on the lap of another passenger while
manning the wheel, but was letting an eccentric old man shift the gears for him
as the stick was conveniently positioned between the old chap’s thighs. Next to
Grandpa was a typical well-rounded middle-aged woman in her “gomesi” (Ugandan
traditional dress) whose body was twisted in such a way that one of her bottoms
touched what little space was left of the front seat while the rest of her body
hang in the air.

On the second row sat a bosomy
young mother with an infant perpetually clutched to her chest. To her left was
a scrawny woman in tattered clothes whom, I suspect, looked older than her
actual age, cradling a sick-looking child with shifty eyes who kept looking
nervously towards the sky, as if praying for angels to deliver him from the
misery. Once in a while he tugged at the dirt-adorned collar of the fellow
sitting between her mother and me. This guy, oh this guy. I had every reason to
think that he was sent by the gods to punish me for massacring a swarm of tse-tse
flies the day before along the shores of Lake Victoria in Ssese Palm Beach.
This guy’s stench! A mixture of dried sweat, unwashed armpits, rotten meat, and
sour milk. I craned my neck towards Dilman for the entire two-hour ordeal  to avoid inhaling the breath of death.  And Dilman, well, he was basically glued to
the car’s door, the only part of his body moving were his eyeballs and mouth. The
other four passengers were arranged neatly in the backseat, along with all our
luggage.
Sometimes, we have to draw a line
between going on an adventure and risking reaching our destinations either in
shreds or in one numb piece. Halfway into the trip, I could no longer tell
whether the foot I’m stepping on was mine or my seatmate’s.  The intimacy was just too much! Squashed as
we were inside the small car, we had to keep the windows rolled up to keep the
dust out. It didn’t help much that my long white dress was soaked in what
seemed to be the sweat or urine of the fellow to my right. I wanted to complain
to Dilman but seeing him as miserable as I was, I swallowed my words and prayed
for redemption—which thankfully came just as I started feeling puke tickling
my throat.

We reached the Luku landing site
to catch the Bukakata ferry which would take us to the other side of the lake
for free. With a joint sigh of relief, all fourteen of us popped out of the car
like popcorn. Pak! Pak! Pak!  For the
next hour, we were lucky to breathe the fresh lake air—but not for long. We
had to squeeze ourselves back into the van to take us to Nyendo town.  This time, I took my rightful place on
Dilman’s lap, despite his protests. But what could a girl do? I didn’t fancy
soaking another liter of sweat and urine from my seatmate. No, thanks.  And so the ride to hell started again.

Along the way, a traffic
policeman stopped us, and I thought, “Finally, SALVATION!” But to my utter
horror, the driver simply stepped out of the car, handshook a few bills into the
policeman’s palm, and in less than a minute he was back behind the wheels,
speeding away along the dirt road. I asked Dilman, “Didn’t that policeman see
how overcrowded this car is?” The answer I got? “Welcome to Uganda.”

He went on to tell me that
sometimes, on the highways, passengers connive with the drivers to hoodwink
traffic policemen. This being a back road, with sparse traffic (we didn’t pass
any other car in the one hour we were on this dirt road), the traffic policemen
take bribes and turn a blind eye to overloading. But on the highways, they are
stricter. However, when the driver sees traffic police up ahead, he stops, and
asks some passengers to get off. He will then give these passengers a few coins
so they can take boda-bodas to a prearranged location ahead. He will then drive
up to the traffic policeman with the legal number of passengers on board, gives
the cop a friendly wave, and a few meters ahead finds his extra passengers
waiting.
I can’t believe passengers would cooperate in
this lawbreaking, but then, I was soon to find out the reason they do it.
Travelling in rural Uganda can be frustrating. There are no regular buses. You
simply stand at the roadside and hope and pray a car will come along to take
you to your destination. Sometimes, the only cars that appear are already full,
and you have no option but to connive with the drivers, otherwise you fail to
travel.
Upon reaching Nyendo, we took boda-bodas to the highway, where we
looked for a normal—read: not overloaded—mini-bus to the Equator. We found
a crowd of passengers waiting. The commuter taxis were few, and charging us exorbitant
fares. Probably because I was a foreigner or maybe because Uganda is a real
capitalist country. Increase in demand leads to automatic increase in prices.
So arrived at the Equator, and
what do I see? This.
A damsel waiting for her knight in shining armor.
What more evidence can one possibly have?

Not much of an experience really.
There were people offering us a water-draining demonstration, just in case we doubt we’re
really at the Equator. It shows water spinning to opposite directions when you’re in different (North and South) hemispheres and doesn’t spin at all when you’re on the equator.  So they conduct this “experiment” in exchange for
a few shillings, of course, and a fancy certificate saying you’ve crossed the
equator. But for me, a photo session was enough proof that I was there, right
at the center of the world—zero degrees latitude!

How did I get there again? Ah,
never mind.  At least I have one more
thing added to my bragging rights.

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Kampala: First Impressions
Creatures from the Other World

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