Twenty-four continuous hours of travelâ€”by overnight ferry across Lake Victoria followed by a series of minivan â€œdala-dalasâ€â€”takes us from Mwanza, Tanzania to the Ugandan capital. Our midday border crossing at Mutukula is easier than expected. As our vehicle slows, touts surround us with their roasted corn, goat-liver-on-a-stick, warm bottles of Fanta, and baggies of shiny-fried beetle grubs; they are relatively calm and curious, and they briefly scatter when I take out my camera, but immediately regroup with smiles, relentless with their wares.
Tay and I pass on the food but, as we get down with our bags to cross the no-manâ€™s land between nations, we purchase seats on the next dala-dala, and exchange US$40 worth of Tanzania shillings for local money. After securing our visas and stamps, we mash into the vehicle, thick with body odor and tinny Afro-pop, and are on our way, speeding north across the equator. We roll into Kampala late in the afternoon, famished and aching from the cramped seats. As we get out, we are accosted by the driver and his attendant, who demand 10,000 shillings (about $6) above the passage weâ€™ve already paid, presumably because we are white and rich. A fellow passenger stands up for us, running interference as we push out of the crowd and away from the thievesâ€™ cries of, â€œGive me money!â€
After a quick call to Aunt Linda, we are immediately swept into the expat African development set, sipping South African wine and French champagne behind high, concertina wire-topped walls, chatting with Africa Peace Corps and USAID big-wigs and heads of various NGOs; they are long-time expatriates, most boasting more than 20 years overseas. They are also Lindaâ€™s closest girlfriends and they give Tay and I warm hugs of greeting (â€œYâ€™all are family,â€ says one, justifying her embrace).
Aunt Linda, our cheerful and eager host for four whirlwind days, has 21 years abroad under her belt, having worked in Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Malawi, and Somalia before coming to Uganda four years ago. She is a Nurse Practitioner and Master in Public Health, specializing in reproductive health and family planning. Here in Kampala, she promotes â€œpsycho-socialâ€ support groups for HIV-positive women and children, and we are lucky to visit during her final months of her career abroad (her next adventure is going home to Vermont).
Linda makes us feel like royalty and we lounge around her spacious abode accordingly. I discover a hardcover copy of Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux, and I dig into the middle chapters to see where our paths cross. Two years ago, when I first read the book (winter in Baltimore), I had no reference to the places he passes. After the last few weeks however, I have more to go on, and it is like a new book. Mwanza (the Tanzanian town we just visited) is â€œanother haunted border post, a dismal and interesting one, that the safari-going tourist who flew into the international airport at Arusha would never see.â€ Except us, I think. Theroux continues, â€œThey would see only some slavering animals and colorful natives. In Mwanza, the natives were not colorful, merely numerous and raggedâ€¦.â€ Dar es Salaam, he writes, is just another hot African slum, and Zanzibar is â€œan island of smelly alleys and sulky Muslims.â€
Uganda, Theroux writes, a survivor of â€œregicide, two revolutions, a coup dâ€™etat, AIDS, and Idi Amin,â€ appears before my eyes in the same details from his book: roadside coffin makers, garbage-eating marabou storks, â€œwhirling grasshoppers,â€ and the worn buildings of Bat Valley. I wish we had more time to explore, to learn, to meet, but as we approach the final leg of our journey, time begins to seem short.
Still, even with limited days, Aunt Linda makes sure to get us into the field, and we do indeed get a glimpse beyond those ever-present walls.