Through Katuna & Back Again …Lessons Learned

We got to the bus station congratulating ourselves that we managed to get tickets that would carry us overnight from Kigali, Rwanda straight to Jinja, Uganda.  We were scheduled to arrive in Jinja bright and early on New Year’s Eve.  These were the exact tickets our friends had wanted and tried to buy two days before we bought ours but were unsuccessful.  We were the lucky ones.  The bus company must have added a new bus on the route to meet the demand.

With a reliable bus line (especially on a route you know) traveling at night is relatively safe and affordable.  The same rules apply as they would anywhere else at any other time: don’t accept food or water from anyone, don’t carry valuables, be prepared to part with whatever you do have if it means continued safety (a watch, earrings, etc.), bring a flashlight or headlamp, carry your passport (with proof of vaccinations if in a yellow fever zone to avoid on the spot vaccinations – scary but I`ve seen it happen), be friendly to the people around you because they could be the ones negotiating for you in the worst case scenario, and always, always, always say a prayer for safety.  You never know the conditions of the road, the racing speeds of other drivers, the skill required for your driver to manage the obstacle course of animals and other opponents fighting at break-neck speeds for the right of way, or whether or not the resourceful shoelace and bicycle part holding a critical element of the vehicle together will stay intact.  Most of all, you never know who may be lurking around the corner.

All our belongings in tow, we stepped up to the ticket counter with our previously purchased tickets in hand and ask which of the buses we need to board for today’s evening bus to Jinja.  We are about to find out that this bus does not exist.  We are about to find out that our gloating over having the tickets our friends wanted would leave them with the last laugh.  We are about to find out that our tickets are actually for tomorrow’s evening bus.  We already knew we did not want to be on an overnight African bus to welcome in the New Year.  We already knew we did not have the finances to stay another night.  The news dropped like heavy rain on new leaves unable to bear its weight; but bear it we did.  There was no time for wallowing in self-pity.

We asked for a refund, to know when the next bus was leaving, and for tickets on that bus.  Upon hearing this was another day away we pleaded for a refund of at least two tickets and this humility taught us an important lesson: When something turns out to be too good to be true, maybe it is.  Maybe we should have taken the time to not only double, but triple check our ticket date and time of departure when purchasing.  It turned out our brilliant plan and had not been so brilliant after all.

Let me now make the context a little clearer.  Most of the Rwandan Francs in our possession came from the currency exchange bureau.  An assortment of US Dollars, Euros, Ugandan Shillings, and Kenyan Shillings all for Rwandan Francs.  We spent cautiously and on our last day in Rwanda took what we had budgeted for our trip to the memorial centres outside Kigali and spent it accordingly.  We had just enough for lunch in the city and for transportation to pick up our belongs from the hotel and head to the bus station. Now, with our Rwandan Francs spent all we had to do was get onto our Ugandan-bound bus.  That same bus which we now hear leaves the following night.  We are acutely aware that we have no money left to stay the night – never mind afford the transportation required to get us to a hotel.  Okay, this isn’t entirely true.  Two of us have VISA, which thankfully does work, but only 1 of us could afford to use it.  I thought of leaving the other 2 and putting myself up in Hôtel des Mille Collines and then booking a flight to Nairobi on VISA but realized how selfish this would be – to leave my two traveling companions stranded.  So we pleaded.  We pleaded for a ticket refund that would be enough get the three of us safe transportation to the Katuna, the Rwandan-Ugandan border town where we knew there would be taxis that could take us to banks which were compatible with our international bank cards.  Two Canadians and a Colombian: two negotiators and one to sit overwhelmed on the verge of tears.  Two of the three tickets refunded, cash in hand, I look up and notice a sign in the office reading ‘never trust your friends’ and a second one about something hiding behind a smile.  It was such an unusual sentiment for a bus company to have on the walls that I couldn`t help but wonder about the coincidence of them hanging in this particular ticket office in Rwanda.  From the bottom of our hearts today we still send a grateful merci beaucoup to the man, whom we believe out of goodness of his heart and his own pocket, refunded our tickets.  May he be blessed and never he nor his dear ones be in need!

We headed to the bus park in search of a mini bus to get us to the Ugandan border – and fast if we were to make it before midnight.  We asked around in French.  Eventually someone took my hand and led us to the one which was leaving the soonest.  We asked around and upon confirmation that this was indeed where we needed to be, thanked him gratefully, doubled checked the price, and got on board.  I took a window seat (which I always prefer) and the bus was soon filled with passengers all heading towards Katuna.

After making our way through Kigali traffic and filling up at a petrol station we were off.  The paved road began to rise and fall carrying us further away from a shrinking Kigali.  When the pavement ended and the potholes began Kigali was far from sight folded in the hilly horizon.  Interesting, the other side of Kigali we saw today (towards the memorials) was flat, encompassing both fields and swamps.  Our hope to reach the border before dark was quickly diminished as the potholes stretched out for miles before us slowing down our pace and were accompanied by numerous stops for people to descend and walk into the scenery.  Where was the path they followed or the sign which told when to alight?

It was already dark on these roads when the biggest surprise occurred.

We are smoking.  Not literally but our mini bus is.  The passengers on the front seats pull the material back from the ceiling above the window and there we find the wires.  The engine still on, they pull on the wires until they all come out. I think this is the scariest moment of my life.  What are these wires connected to?  Even if they are connected to the lights – on this curvy road which is comprised only of potholes  – it would be a death sentence.  I pray we not be pulling on those or other more important wiring.  Wires out and the impromptu electricians satisfied the ceiling is placed back in order and we carry on.  This smoking vehicle, what I had thought was the scariest moment of this trip, (second to being under water for so long when rafting), is actually soon to be replaced as the actual scariest moment of this trip.

We are now on fire.  Being rammed in a vehicle full of people with a fire above out heads on a bumpy road in the middle of nowhere surrounded by complete darkness in Central Africa was not on my list of things to do before I die, but now I will have to write it down and cross it off.  That’s right; because now I’ve been there, done that.

Directly underneath the light bulb that is shooting sparks is a grade school child whose mother hugged her aside, close to her body away farther from the danger.  People are pulling on more wires the engine is running, there is yelling in a local dialect I do not understand.  Finally the engine is turned off.  Thank God, I think.  And then I wonder, is it better to be in here in darkness or filed out of this vehicle on the side of the road in a foreign jungle in the middle of the night?  I don’t know, so I pray.

After what feels like a very long time we are back on the road.  We must be nearing the border.  Fewer people remain in our vehicle and monstrous 18-wheeler trucks are flying by at break-neck speeds.  Eventually we stop.  I try to get my bearings.  Katuna.  We are told this is the last stop, collect our items, and step out.  Yes!  It is the border crossing I remember.  Thank God.

Having officially left Rwanda we walk 3 across as we head to the Ugandan immigration office.  There is an unlit curve in the road ahead of us.  We can barely make out the silhouettes of men gathering and our heartbeats rise.  Eventually we realize they are the non-threatening currency exchangers present at every border crossing.   Regardless, our pace quickens and we pass them.  Out of ears reach we can’t help but comment on what an adventure this has been: leaving a country we love, Rwanda, with everything we own on our backs and not a Franc in our pocket.  Humbled and remembering those who would have left similarly but for other reasons, we carry on.

Officially in Uganda we seek out a taxi to take us to Kampala.  With prospective drivers now arguing each other over the prices we are guided by locals to decide on going to a nearby town which is a common stop for buses en route to Kampala.  There we will find ATMs to pay the taxi driver and purchase bus tickets to Kampala.  Having thought this may happen when arriving back in Uganda we knew it was the only plausible option.  However, when offered to share a taxi with others, 1 in the back seat and 2 in the station wagon trunk, I admittedly refuse.  If there was anything I remember being drilled about in Ghana it was to never share a taxi with people you don’t know.  I convinced my travel companions and we agreed to take our own car and pay the difference.  Amidst more arguing between taxi drivers and the share taxi drivers (over taking us and over the price we had negotiated down to) we eventually get into our own vehicle and head north into Uganda.

The road is turns around corners, the car is flying, and the fog is so dense I can barely see.  I do not feel safe.  We tell the driver to slow down.  The road continues.  So do we.  Up, down, and around the corner.  Eventually we pass a small town.  Outside the town our taxi slows down.  The driver asks if his ‘bro’ can join us.  Shock escapes my lips certain I heard wrong, “what?!”  As the driver asks again someone tries to get into my locked car door.  It’s an odd thing how people respond in these situations.  Auto-command came on.  “NO!” I state with authority.  I point forward past the driver to the road ahead.  “Drive!”  To my travel companions I say “lock your doors.”  They are already doing so and for that I am thankful because the outsider is already on the other side of the car at one of their doors.  Realizing the potential severity we all command the driver at the same time to continue forward.  I fear for our Colombian traveling companion that this is too close to home as she cries “no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”  Our driver laughs as he gives the vehicle some gas.  I notice a car slowing down beside us as we begin moving forward again; the hopeful passenger behind us.  Perhaps it was to be an innocent rider, but for us, it was too close for comfort.

We make it to town, reserve bus tickets, find the ATM, pay the taxi driver, find a makeshift washroom, and get on the bus.  Ten minutes later we are heading to Kampala.  Finally feeling safe we sleep the most uncomfortable sleep of our lives.  I wake up with a huge bump on my head from it banging on the window.  With the gravol induced haze coupled with the overwhelming sense of relief to be leaving the border nightmare behind, I could have slept through anything.

Eventually a city rises before us and as we near we can see, yes, this is Kampala.  Sweet victory!  Surely we will now safely arrive in Jinja before the others even leave Kigali.  We alight at the final stop in Kampala and take boda-bodas to a bus heading to Jinja.  We buy tickets, water and board the bus.  I notice a hole in the lining of my purse.  There I find what has be driving me crazy: the extra Euro, US Dollars, and Rwanda Francs I knew I hadn’t spent.  From the window, under heavy eyelids, I watch as Kampala awakes around us.

We are in Jinja bright and early on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 2011.  We hike to find somewhere for breakfast.  A familiar place.  In the last 12 hours nothing has felt so good.