Uganda Days 62 & 63: Chaotic Kampala

I mentioned in the last post that I was planning on going to shoot around some of the markets this weekend, and though admittedly my resolve did waver a little bit, I decided to go for it. Before I left for this excursion on Saturday morning, I put quite a bit of forethought into the preparations. Given the real possibility that I would come back with less than I took, I figured it wouldn't hurt to be too careful. I left all my cards at home, except for my driver's license, which I kept because it's probably not the best idea to go walking around a foreign country with no ID. I kept only small bills in my wallet, and not very many—basically enough for a couple of boda rides. And since having my wallet vanish from my pocket wasn't inconceivable, I also hid some bills in my sock; after all, I'd still need to get home somehow, and in any event, I wasn't keen on being stuck downtown with no money and no ID. Wallet and phone went in my front pockets, and I wore the longest t-shirt I have here.

I then took nearly everything out of my backpack so that my camera was basically the only thing in there when I left. I also put one of those TSA locks through the zipper so no one could open it—though I tend to do that everywhere I travel when my camera's in the bag.

And with that, I was ready to go—hopped on a boda and headed downtown. Barely halfway there, I had the first notable experience of the day. We were stopped at a red light—one I've been stopped at dozens of times before—with plenty of traffic and other bodas around, and the usual pedestrians and hawkers walking by and around all the cars. In other words, nothing at all out of the ordinary. It's a big intersection, and we're in the middle of a wide road. But then, some very normal-looking man, who looks as if he's simply a casual pedestrian crossing the street, very calmly reaches for the mirror on the bike (or at least that general area). So my boda driver kind of swatted away his hand; and then—still completely calm and expressionless, mind you—this guy grabs onto the handlebar. My driver tries to wrench it free, but the guy doesn't let go; he pulls harder, trying to jerk the bike away from this guy. The light then turns green, and everybody starts racing off, as they do in Kampala. We try to take off too, but the random guy is still holding onto the bike, even as we're pulling away, my driver now more aggressively trying to get him to let go. Finally, we break free—but not for any reason other than the fact that the bike's forward acceleration was now too much for him to hold back. As we sped away, gunning it, my driver looked back, and I could see clearly the look of confusion and adrenaline. Which of course confirmed to me right away that this incident was strange enough that even this veteran Kampala boda driver was perturbed by it.

The whole episode was extremely bizarre. And though my description seems to draw it out, it had started and finished within a few seconds. I'm sure I had an even more confused expression than my driver, and I certainly felt the adrenaline rush as well. So bizarre. Seriously, this guy looked perfectly normal, completely casual, unhurried, and even as we were speeding away, that never changed. And I still have absolutely no idea why he grabbed the bike in the first place. It's certainly the most inexplicable thing I've experienced in the nine weeks I've been here. Even now, I'm shaking my head in bewilderment.

With that excitement over, we carried on, and soon I was being dropped off downtown. I decided I should start with Nakasero Market, which is less chaotic and less intense than the other big one. Before taking my camera out, I thought I should walk around and get a feel for the place first. So I did that, making a couple of circuits, exploring. I'd say about half of it was produce and food, and the other half was a mish-mash of...stuff.

This was the less chaotic market, but it was still pretty hectic. Not to mention the fact that I was wildly out of place. A lone muzungu attracts a LOT of attention walking around a place like that. Lots of people calling me to look at what they're selling, lots of people offering to help me in various ways. One guy actually came up next to me and introduced himself as "Mr. Help".

Oh, and at one point, a guy walked past me going the other direction, and I did a double-take head-swivel when I saw the words "Toronto Maple Leafs" on his t-shirt. Took me by surprise. I have a sneaking suspicion that he might not actually be a fan.

Anyway, after walking around for a bit, I decided not to take my camera out. It was kind of disappointing, but honestly, the last thing I needed was to be holding an enormous camera and sticking it in people's faces. I'm not exactly one for the spotlight.

But even so, the main reason I was doing this was because I didn't want to leave here without experiencing a more authentic Kampala, you know? And I didn't need a camera for that. So I continued walking, spending a little more time at Nakasero before heading down to my next destination, the real deal, the big kahuna, if you will. This one is called Owino Market, and I think it's the second-biggest market in Africa for second-hand clothes (thanks Google!), though as I would soon find out, clothes were only one part of it. But first, a picture! No, I didn't take out my camera, but I figured I could at least try and get some phone pictures to spice up this blog for you. This was somewhere between Nakasero and Owino, and I will preface it by saying the picture does little to convey the frenetic bustle happening even in this scene.

"Hands A Possibility" feels less like a slogan and more like a disclaimer.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, I arrived at Owino Market. Here is a photo looking at it—or rather, looking at the tiny little sliver I could capture with an iPhone standing in one spot across the street. It stretches all the way down the road in either direction and goes just as deep.

Multiply this by a hundred and raise it to the power of utter chaos.

I know this is becoming a common trope in these blogs, but...I can't describe to you what this market was like. Most of the pictures I took were outside looking toward it, simply because it was too crazy to think about taking out my phone inside. Part of the market is bordered by a canal, so there are bridges in some places to get across. I walked down the road to one of the more spacious, open sections for my first venture inside. This is crossing the bridge:

See that woman's expression? That's the look I get about 25% of the time in this country.

I walked around this less crowded section for a while, then made my way into the market proper. This place is a maze. Claustrophobes, proceed with caution. The place is endless. A grid of cramped, narrow alleyways filled with people, products, produce, spices, raw meat and fish. And yes, the second-hand clothes as well—but maybe I missed that section, because the majority of what I passed was other stuff. This picture was at least half an hour into the maze, the first time there was a lull in the crowd giving me enough space to take out my phone and snap one:

This expression—let's call it wary disinterest—is another 25%.

Owino Market is the purest distillation of chaos I've ever experienced. I was walking around for maybe two hours, and I don't think I crossed the same spot twice. At one point I emerged onto a street and had no idea where I was, having somehow made my way several blocks south, then had to walk fifteen minutes back up around the side of the market to where I'd started. The place is madness. Once I'd found my way back, I took a breather on another of the bridges.

Yes, somehow the market as spilled onto the banks of this sewage canal, despite the fences.

And the other side:

I won't describe the smell.

If you scoffed earlier at the level of precaution I took before coming here today, I can testify—having now experienced it myself—that it was justified, even based on the insanity of the place alone. And if that wasn't enough to convince me, one particular incident certainly did. I was walking through one of these alleys when I felt a very slight tug on my backpack, one that didn't feel quite natural. Alarm bells went off and I whipped my head around, and I found a young guy with his hands on the zipper to the small front pocket of my backpack. I didn't think he was expecting me to notice, because he looked sort of stunned for a moment and then whipped his hands away from the bag. I didn't say anything—just stared, probably with more intensity than I ever have before. I must have had quite the look on my face, because after another split-second of that stunned expression, he merely hung his head with what I can only describe as meekness and fell back while I kept walking. Neither of us said a word.

I've never stared down a would-be thief before. On the one hand, the most he would have gotten was a bottle of hand sanitizer, because I'd emptied that small pocket before coming in anticipation of such a theft. I'm also glad I had the lock on the big pocket, because as intensely as I stared this time, I'm not convinced it would be enough to shame a thief into submission with a camera on the line. Luckily, no one could get to the camera and no one tried simply to take the bag and run, which was the other possibility. I'm not sure what I would have done in that scenario. You're first thought might be to run after him, or yell "thief" and hope someone stops him, but those are dangerous responses in Kampala. So-called "mob justice" is a real problem here, and people have been beaten or burned to death for stealing far less than a fancy camera.

But thieves know that, and I doubt they would be so brazen as to try and take the whole bag off my back and book it.

Then again, someone did grab an occupied motorcycle in broad daylight in a busy intersection—not that I'm convinced he was trying to steal it (with that odd, blank expression...).

Anyway, those were the markets. After leaving Owino, I walked up to a "craft market" in a much quieter part of town, but this was basically what I expected—a few dozen identical little shops selling identical mass-produced souvenirs for tourists. And of course, the only people walking around were a handful of foreigners. I didn't stay long.

I'm really glad I decided to do this exploring today. Of course, I'm also really sad that I never got my camera out, but there was no way, not yet—I think I'd have to go back a few more times at the very least before I was comfortable enough to do that. Even then...but anyway, I'm glad I went. After all, there's more to travelling than taking pictures.

When I got home it was only early afternoon, but I was exhausted—all the chaos, the constant vigilance, it does a number on you. I didn't need any more excitement for the day, so I quickly turned around and resumed my usual weekend activities, sitting around with a coffee and working on personal stuff. After that I had Mexican for dinner by the mall, then came home. I watched a movie called Sing Street, which I really loved. It was a lot of fun, I would recommend.

And that brings me to the end of Saturday evening. I climbed into bed and had a peaceful, undisturbed sleep—not.

Quite a few weeks ago, I think I mentioned a small ant situation in my bedroom, in one of the corners where the walls meet the ceiling. Basically, every night I could hear faint little scratching sounds, and eventually discovered that these were ants after watching a whole bunch of them fall to the ground one night, right next to my bed. That particular night wasn't too pleasant, with ants free-falling into my bedroom, but that seemed to be the worst incident. Since then, it's just been the scratching noises, which became more constant and a bit louder, but I grew used to that. As far as I knew, the ants were confined to that one corner, and if they fell, they fell to the ground. No problem at all.

The past week or two, the noise has been getting worse, which would have been fine on its own, except that it was also venturing further from the corner and into the room. Still coming from the ceiling, but now it was all along the wall behind my bed. It was enough that it was starting to bother me again, which is annoying, because it hadn't bothered me for most of the time I've been here.

Fast-forward to a few days ago. I'll give you the abridged version. Basically, I start noticing a new sound, which sounded very much like small things falling to the ground. It happens every few minutes. Now it's sounding like something's falling on the bed. So eventually I turn on the light and see two or three large ants crawling on top of the pillow next to me. Okay, that's not cool. At least they seemed to be in a bit of a daze, kind of scrambling in one spot, not really getting far. So I take care of those. But I keep hearing these sounds, and it's happening all across the wall, not just in the far corner but right next to me. I spend one or two nights just trying to ignore it, because there was nothing I could do—the ceiling is fifteen feet up and insecticide didn't have any noticeable effect, I tried. But it was difficult to ignore. Seriously, these ants were making a lot of noise, somehow.

Then last night, after trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep for an hour, I turn on all the lights and really try to find out what's going on. In the past few days I'd found a couple more on the other pillow, and a couple on the ground, but despite all the racket they've been making, and despite the frequent sound of them falling, I haven't seen any on the wall or the ceiling.

So with the lights on, I observe. Here's what's happening. Evidently, there must be a tiny gap where the wall behind my bed meets the ceiling, because the noise is coming from all across it. Every couple of minutes—and that's not an exaggeration—a new ant materializes form this gap and falls, sometimes landing on the floor behind the bed, sometimes landing on the bed itself. Two small things to be thankful for: one, a lot of the falling happens on the side of the bed where I don't sleep; and two, when they were falling on my side, they tended to fall behind the bed, not on it/me. I'm glad the bed was about a foot away from the wall (tops) and never pressed up against it completely, because—well, let's just say I looked behind the bed and there are piles of dead and dying ants. They've been falling back there, one every few minutes (at night...oddly none of this seems to happen during the day), for who knows how long.

To put it simply, it has been raining ants over my bed, most of them falling inches from where I sleep. You can hear them falling. It's disconcerting, to say the least. I can deal with ants, I can deal with the noises they were making, but when there are swathes of them dive-bombing next to my face all night, we've got ourselves a problem.

I moved the bed as far away from the wall as I could, then sent a message to my landlady first thing on Sunday morning. I tried to deal with this on my own, but spraying didn't help, the ants are fifteen feet up, and I was out of ideas. She was, thankfully, very responsive, and informed me that my old acquaintance the plumber would come by between 2 and 4 this afternoon to assess the situation. Wonderful news.

Since I needed to be back here by 2, I rushed off to the mall to spend a few hours working in my usual spot, then returned after lunch.

Sometimes, this city is laughably predictable. At around 3 I get a call from the plumber saying he was late, he'd be here at 5. At about 4, the caretaker (I guess the landlady called him too) came by and had a look, so that he could tell the plumber, who he assured me was still coming today. Then 5 rolls around, nothing. I make dinner. Around 6:30 the plumber arrives.

I knew this would happen, but I came home for 2 anyway because I'm an optimist, I guess. It's all a bit frustrating, really...I hate spending weekends sitting around my house. I'm so much more productive when I go elsewhere. I could have stayed working at the mall until after dinner!

Anyway, I'm just glad he came. I showed him the ant graveyard behind my bed and told him about the problem. He was going on about spraying, but I rather emphatically convinced him that it needed to be sealed. So he's going to look into that and give me a call, hopefully tomorrow, to set up a time. I'm only here for a little more than three weeks, so let's hope this happens soon. And, I suppose, let's hope it actually works. It's not easy trying to sleep with ants falling all around you.

Okay, somehow this blog turned out way longer than I had anticipated. It is definitely my bed time. Hope you've enjoyed reading! At least my gravity-prone ants might provide some amusement for you, if nothing else.