As a 2011 finale, we decided to embark on an adventure this past week. Many of you may think living in Africa would seem adventurous enough. But even with all its excitement and challenges, life in the developing world can become quite routine. As with living in any large city, there comes a time when one needs a reprieve from the noise and chaos of the metropolitan life. So we decided to head east to Mbale with fellow eMiers Gary and Erin Hightower to relax and recharge. To ensure an adequate amount of adventure, we used one of the more quintessential African modes of transport, the bus.
Think Greyhound, with about half again as many people crammed on. The bus line we rode only sat five across as opposed to six across that Robert rode for one of his project trips up north.
According to the guidebooks (and everything else I saw online), the Post Bus was our best option. There are plenty of matatus (14 passenger minibus-taxis) running to Mbale that would make the journey quicker but are “driven with less care.” While the big buses are pretty tight on room, the matatus are even tighter and any luggage traveling with you would be tied on the roof as opposed to put in the cargo hold below.
It is interesting to note that Post Bus utilizes “security” with the luggage, at least on the Kampala end of the journey. Before we were allowed to get in line to purchase tickets, we were asked to place our bags, including carry-on, on tarps where a dog sniffed them. Presumably, he was smelling for bombs, but I was asked to hold a bag full of snacks rather than have it sniffed.
While the Post Bus might be somewhat safer, it can be significantly slower. As the name suggests, it is operated by the Ugandan Post Office, stopping at every little post office between Kampala and the final destination to pick up and drop off mail as well as passengers. Normally a four hour journey in a private vehicle, the Post Bus took 5½ hours to reach Mbale and seven hours to return to Kampala. Still, it was an interesting ride.
Everything I had seen online listed the bus departing the main Kampala post office at 8:00am. We decided to get an early start leaving the house at 6:30am to ensure adequate time. This proved to be a good decision as the bus actually pulled out at 7:30am. We were surprised the bus was departing with only about a quarter of passenger capacity. We were the only mzungus on board. The bus gradually filled up, though, as we stopped several times on the way out of the city and continued to stop at all the post offices along the way.
By the time we arrived in Mbale, the bus was quite full. Getting off and collecting our luggage was quite the feat fighting through a mass of people waiting to board and trying to get their luggage in the cargo holds. Finally, we were able to claim our luggage and make our way into town.
We enjoyed a couple of days relaxing in Mbale, one of the larger towns in Uganda. The hotel where we stayed had a pool and some lovely gardens and grounds. Caleb convinced us all to play a round on the hotel’s mini-golf course. Other hotel guests (including Ugandan, British, French and Bostonian) provided plenty of kids for Caleb to play with. We ventured out for two day trips: to see Sipi Falls, a series of three breath-taking falls, and to simply explore Mbale itself.
All too soon, it was time to get back on the bus and head home. The evening before we left we were joking about wanting to stay longer. I think we would have been a bit more serious had we known the length of trip we were in for the next day.
For the return trip, we were told to be at the post office by 10:00am. After our experience with the early departure from Kampala, we opted to be at the post office at 9:15am rather than being 23 hours early for the next bus.
Unfortunately, the bus did not arrive until 11:00am and looked quite full as it pulled up. I was the first one to board. Despite several empty seats particularly towards the back of the bus, there were not three together, let alone five within close proximity for all of us. Finally, as I approached the back of the bus, I noticed that the back row was empty except for one Ugandan gentleman sitting by the window. Perfect…five seats together.
While the five seats were together, my find wasn’t as fortuitous as I had first thought. As any school kid who has been on a fieldtrip or regularly rides the bus knows, the back of the bus is the best place to sit. Although the back of the bus is exciting for school kids, it does not have the same attraction for four grown adults. Caleb had a great time, as the seemingly thousands of bumps were greatly magnified, sometimes sending us completely airborne. We endured seven hours of this wonderful ride.
As I mentioned, the bus was quite full when we boarded and quickly became completely full after only a few more stops. By the time we reached the next sizable town of Tororo, there were more people boarding than getting off leaving many to stand in the aisle. I was half comforted by the fact that we were sitting in the back row, right in front of the emergency exit, so we would be the first ones out should anything happen. As we progressed towards Kampala, disembarking passengers began to outnumber boarding passengers, so by the time we reached Jinja, about 50 kilometers outside of Kampala, everyone finally had a seat. In fact, by the time we got back to the main post office in Kampala, the bus was only half full.
Buses in Africa don’t provide food and beverage service any more than an intercity bus in the States, but what they do have is a lot more fun. When the bus stops to take on passengers and mail, vendors will often come running with food and beverages to sell. At the larger trading centers, you get your choice of meat on a stick (beef, goat, chicken and sausage), chapattis, roasted maize, bananas and beverages of the bottled variety (water, soda or juice). One simply sticks their hand out the window with some money voicing their request. At one of the stops, a vendor with a box of bottled drinks and chapattis boarded the bus and travelled with us for a few kilometers while he peddled his snacks. We got some chapattis and a drink from him as I wasn’t bold enough to deal with the vendors out the window.
I tried to get a picture of all the vendors mobbing the bus at one of the larger trading centers, but I wasn’t quick enough and one of the vendors fussed at me when she saw the camera. But I did manage to get a picture of the mob out the back window as we were pulling away just to give you an idea of the sheer number of them.
It may have been a long trip, but we definitely saw some interesting things along the way, including a matatu with a load of chickens tied to the roof. Of course, that didn’t compare to the roof completely full of chickens I saw later. Our bus was not devoid of feathery friends as we listened to a box of chirping chicks for much of the trip. The chicks were fortunate to ride up top with us, while the adults made the journey in the cargo hold below as we discovered when we stepped off. We saw at least half a dozen chickens come out of the cargo holds; unfortunately, not all of them made the journey successfully. At least, I assume they were alive when they started out.