Work has been very busy here, and although I have been used to having a half-term break between the September – December school term, my current workplace here in Uganda does not have that. So the idea of working straight through from August 15th to December 16th was quite a change to my routine.
Needless to say, when we received a very last minute email to inform staff that we had Monday 12th September off, due to Eid-al-Adha, I felt a huge excitement wash over me and a huge smile landed itself on my face.
I began the long weekend with a Braai, enjoying time with new friends as the fire slowly roasted our meat and the smell of delicious tastes wafted through the air.
It had been my initial intention to then make the most of the long weekend by meandering off to the Ssesse islands for some rest and recuperation, and to spend some time in solitude. One of the things I adore the most about my time here thus far, is how many people I have met in just a few months and how full my phone has become with new contacts. That said, I have spent very little time by myself or in stillness. And I felt like that this was the weekend for that.
However, I also realised how nice it is to travel with people and that I don’t always have this luxury, due to differing schedules, family commitments and so on. Therefore when it came up during the Braai that some of my friends were also keen to explore the islands, we re-made our plans and prepared for our early start the next day. And this is where the games began!
First of all, we were limited by timings as there is only one ferry to the Ssesse islands a day, so miss it and you miss out. Our fellow travelling companion however overslept on the Saturday morning, much to his surprise. Leaing my friend and I to wonder whether we should go on ahead or wait for him to stir (very much aware that we were starting to run against the clock). All worked out however and despite the standard Kampala trafifc, and the “know-it-all” satnav insisting on repeatedly directing us back into the thick of the congestion, we made it to the ferry dock in Entebbe in the nick of time. Too late however for us to be able to take the car over with us but that was fine, we didnt want/need it anyhow.
As we prepared to line up for security checks etc, a local hawker approached us offering sunhats for our trip. And as we were on our unexpected “holiday”, we each decided “sure, why not“. My companions each got their hat at a fairly decent price, but frustratingly I then ended up having to pay more as he argued that he had already given a fair share of discount to them. I was focussed on making it on-board the ferry on time, and didnt really notice this cheekiness/discrepancy until too late.
Next stop, the 3.5 hour ferry ride across to the main island, Bugala. The journey seemed to take an inordinately long amount of time, not at all helped by the fact that there was a frightfully intoxicating smell of rotten fish filling the air for the majority of the journey. Thankfully I had a frankicense vaporiser with me that I happily shared around my fellow passengers (for us each to spray onto a tissue and repeatedly inhale in order to overcome this). However it left many of us feeling very nauseous and desperately wanting the ferry ride to end. We also had the experience of being shouted at by various ferry staff; one of them had indicated for us to go and sit on the top deck where there was more room, and therefore give way for more seats within the boat for others. Yet as we moved ourselves up there, we encountered different staff reprimanding us for moving to an out-of-bounds area and so on. That said, when we made it to the top, we arrived to find at least 5 other passengers who were already there and who had not been treated in this way at all. It was an interesting journey let’s say.
On arrival to the jetty, we were greeted by various Ugandans each holding a sign to represent the accomodation they were to take passengers to. My companion immediately remarked, “Hmm, why do we have the crappy sign?“. And on hindsight, the three of us have each taken this as a future lesson for travelling; if your arrival sign is noticeably shoddy in comparison to others, walk away, as fast as you can! My happy-go-lucky outlook at this point didnt really notice the standard of the sign and I was just impressed that we were being picked up and therefore we did not need to sort out transport to our guesthouse.
Now, here is a key point to note: I had been expecting to come to the island to be alone, to sit and read, and to simply stare out at the water. I hadn’t therefore considered needing much in the ways of accomodation and had simply opted for what seemed to be a clean but simplistic place to stay. With the last-minute addition of my two friends to the trip, I had explained this to them and suggested that perhaps they may want to check it out before they added to my booking. They were happy nonetheless just to go with my choice and get rooms there. Yet again, another lesson learnt.
Simplistic is not always the best choice. And in this case, the internet is not always to be trusted. It’s amazing what you can do with a well-angled camera isn’t it …
We arrived at the guesthouse and on first glance it seemed fine. We were by the lakeside and we were offered masala tea to enjoy as we checked in. Then we were accompanied around the different rooms so that we could each choose the one we wanted. Oh dear.
The first room we saw caused each of us to have a chill run down our spine. It gave the impression of a horror movie. The door opened to an alcove-sized room with an altar, covered with a purple satin cloth and there was a strange impression of it being used for sacrificial purposes. Perhaps this was just our over-active imaginations, yet we all three got this sensation!
The next room had a similar set-up, though the main room was larger, albeit very dark and again a bit gloomy. Neither of these rooms had mosquito nets over the beds. Thus I asked the girl where they were. Her response being – “Oh no, we don’t need them, mosquitos don’t come inside here.” Interesting answer given that we were right next to the water’s edge and there were mosquitos everywhere that the eye could see. We each looked at each other and silently laughed together in our eyes. Fascinating idea; we must remember to teach the uneducated mosquitos everywhere else in the world about this rule. Clever ones these SSesse isand mozzies!
We moved onto the third room and found it to be of a similar, basic, yet somehow very dismal feeling. The woman could tell we were disappointed and proceeded to then go on to show us a fourth and final room; this one had three single beds in and gave the impressions of being a scouts hut.
We said very little at this point, each took a key to a room, and disbanded. I went to mine and did a very quick unpack, only to discover I had left my mosquito repellent behind. Good job these mozzies knew they were not allowed in I laughed to myself. I went to lock up my room so that I could find the others, only to find that the catch was smaller than the hole in the mechanism, meaning it wasnt going to be securing anything, not even in a month of Sundays.
As I came out, my friend appeared looking equally frustrated. He had just gone to take a shower and found there wasn’t a single drop of water from the tap. Not only that, he had spotted a mosquito coil on the carpet and had gone to move it away. Only to find that it was in fact a burnt ring mark where a coil had clearly been used only recently. An interesting safety feature that; a burning coil straight onto a carpet, in a wooden hut.
We moved on, to find our third companion. She had ended up in the “sacrificial” room, and was somewhat unnerved. In moments the decision was made. By hook or by crook, we were staying somewhere else. Even if that meant sleeping on the beach! With a cold beer in our hands and our bags on our shoulders, plus a big wave of relief that we had gotten the hell out of there, we hit the road!
Now, as it goes, we had made some friends during our ferry ride across. Partly helped by the bad fish smell,when I had offered the vaporisor around to fellow passengers also becoming green around the gills (excuse the pun!). We had exchanged numbers as they had noticed the Aum symbol on my right wrist (we had begun discussing shared interests and knowledge about hinduism and the celebrations occurring at the time related to Ghanesh, the son of Shiva and Shakti). The family had told us where they were staying on the island, and I had agreed to meeting with them once back in Kampala, in order that I may join them for the celebrations, etc.
Thank our lucky stars that this had happened. As most of the alternative accomodation was full or very highly-priced. We called our new friends and thanks to their friendship with the owners of the place they were staying in, we got sorted out with last minute rooms. And with a discount no less.
The guesthouse also offered a Braai each night that we were there, which pleased all three of us no end. (I was traveling with two South Africans after all, and my housemate and I had each been really missing the experience over the recent months. I have been fortunate enough to have had quite a few over the past year due to my South African connection back in the UK, and I simply adore the community experience of sitting around a fire, sharing stories, good food and drink). So finally we felt it had all fallen into place.
Upon which point my friends realised that a) one of the new hats had been left in the other place and b) so had a bag of toiletries. Ah well, such is life!
The next day we decided to make the most of being on holiday and join our friends from the ferry to take quad bikes around the island. It had been arranged the night before and a confirmation phone-call came through that morning. Before it was time to collect the bikes however, we were invited to take a look around the island’s developing zoo/animal sanctuary. It was quite an interesting set-up, most definitely in its early stages. And I was reminded why I dislike zoos in general – the concept of confining wild animals to small spaces does not make any sense to me at all. However, much of the intention behind this project seems to be conservation and rescue, so if that is the reality then I am thankful. It was great to be up close to the Ugandan crane (never to be seen solo, very much the social bird), though I was uncomfortable about the size of their confines. And I chuckled at the signage displayed on the trees as we went around. Not only do mosquitos apparently follow rules on Bugala island, but so it would seem do monkeys – quite the literate readers and boundary-keepers it would seem …
And so it went, that our comedy of errors was not quite complete, just yet. Following our bizarre little “zoo” trip, we headed off on bodas to collect our quad bikes. There were four of us adults, plus our new friend’s son. When we got there however, we were told there was one quad bike available. No matter which way you looked at it, this mathematical dilemma had no solution with the figures involved. Yet the Ugandan guy could not fathom why we were disgruntled.
By now, my positive outlook had begun to reach it’s own limit, albeit some time later than my two friends’ ones. (The fish smell, the angry ferry staff, the diabolical state of the previous accomodation and so on, had worked together to test theirs). It was my turn to feel annoyance and I simply told the guy he was wasting our time and left.
It all worked out perfectly once again however. A phrase I repeatedly use and enjoy, is TIA (This is Africa), and this trip served as the Fawlty Towers of the Ssesse islands for our trio, reinforcing the definition of this phrase. (In all fairness, it really was a lot of fun and we repeatedly laughed at it all. It will most certainly go down in my memory as one of the funniest relaxing holidays I have been on!)
By not having enough quad bikes, the man and his son were able to take one and ended up sharing it with his wife and his elderly mother, simply going up and down the lawn by the guesthouse, and enabling the young boy to take a turn on it solo.
And us? Well we took the bull by the horns, flagged down a local boda driver, and proceeded to rent motorbikes to ride ourselves. My housemate hasn’t driven one before, so we paid for one driver to stay with us. But my friend and I, well we beamed with joy to finally get behind the handlebars ourselves and feel the wind in our hair through our doing rather than being chauffeured. It had been almost a year to the day since I had last driven one, and I didn’t realise how much I had missed it until I climbed back into the driver’s seat. (Though wearing flipflops is far from a wise idea when riding a bike admittedly).
We enjoyed a beer in a local village, we visited a pineapple plantation (magic of the camera angle to make a pineapple the size of my fist to look huge … my stepdad would be proud), and I frequently laughed aloud as I saw the bewildered faces of the islanders to witness not only mzungus driving themselves on bodas, but in my case, a female mzungu! Whatever next?!
The rest of our trip was, (finally), fairly sedate in comparison, as we each took time to lay in the sun, read our books, and rest. I spent a long time just watching the island’s birds wander up and down the shores, or hop off the derelict jetty to catch a fish (it was seemed like a game of tag, to guess which bird would dive in next), and I thoroughly soaked up the time just to be. The sunset was spectacular and I gave thanks, as I continually do here, for the opportunity to experience all of this.
What a joy it was, to see some more of beautiful Uganda, to laugh so much, and to have such quality time with new friends who I feel like I have known forever.Blessed be.