Looking through the window of the DC-10 it seemed as though we were landing in the middle of nowhere. Stretched out beneath us was lush, green land: bushes, trees and long grass. And then, a little way off in the distance, the blue waters of Lake Victoria.
In the airport I filled out one of the cards and made my way through immigrations. As I waited for my baggage to show up I kept an eye out for Christine. Back in London at Gatwick airport I had spent my time watching people at the gate and narrowing down the passengers to two suspects. While keeping my eye on the luggage being thrown onto the rack I caught sight of one of my choices, and she, indeed, had a bike box. Soon enough I spotted my bike box being tossed onto the conveyor from the room behind the wall where the conveyor started. It slid off and bounced to the ground; before I could intervene the handler was jamming it through the slot again, back on the conveyor. I caught up to the girl I had my sights on and pulled my cart up to hers. We introduced ourselves — it was, indeed, Christine — and made our way towards customs, making some small talk.
Since we had nothing to declare we veered off to the exit but a uniformed customs officer approached us and asked us what we had in the boxes. I explained that we had brought our bicycles from home. He seemed to accept what we were saying, but he wanted us to bring our boxes over to customs to look inside to see if they were new. He came back with a razor blade and slid open the tape along my box and opened up the top. My bike was packaged in cardboard and newspaper, looking like a brand-new bike. He seemed to think it was new, too, but when I offered to point out all the scratches I had put into it he seemed satisfied enough. He didn’t ever bother looking at Christine’s bike.
We continued on into the airport lobby where a line of people were waiting for friends and relatives, some holding signs. Within moments a bearded man dressed in shorts and a t-shirt came up to us and introduced himself as David Mozer. I was momentarily surprised; according to the list, our guides were listed and Dee and Arpad. As it had turned out, they had backed off at the last moment and David himself had flown down to lead the tour. David Mozer, the founder of Bicycle Africa. Truth be told, I was rather pleased: having read his book, Bicycling in Africa and another travelogue of a tour he had led, The Masked Rider by Neil Peart, I had always wanted to meet the man. Now, as it turned out, he was going to be our guide.
David led us outside where we set ourselves up in the corner of the airport. As we unpacked our bikes several Ugandans were leaning out of the windows watching us. As Christine’s bike emerged I was surprised to see it covered in mud and dirt: she had been cycling in the States and in Crete, flying directly to London for her African leg. Meanwhile, as my bike shined in the sun, I suddenly wished it looked a little more battered, if only to give the impression I wasn’t new at this. Which I was. I started the task of putting my bike together. David started to help Christine fix one of her flat tires as I attempted to look like I knew what I was doing.
David helped me twist my handlebars the right way (duh!) and I set about getting the rest of the bike together. In the background children sang, welcoming family returning from a trip. As I was screwing on my rear tire I suddenly heard a tremendous, “BANG.” I was startled, but I kept my eyes on my bike, thinking to myself, “I don’t want to know what that was.” I heard David say, “bicycle tire,” and turned to see him holding up Christine’s previously over-inflated tire to a crowd of people that began to laugh. In a moment an airport security officer appeared, wondering what the noise was. He, too, seemed rather amused when he found out what it was and proceeded to ask David what we were doing with our bicycles.
David suggested I change out of my khakis and shirt so I made my way back into the airport and made use of the washroom, emerging in shorts and t-shirt. David commented that I didn’t seem to talk much. I assured him that once I got to know everyone, I would soon start to talk more.
Pretty soon we were ready to set off. “Ugandans are quiet, gentle people,” David told us as we mounted, “but when they get behind the wheel of a car it’s as if they check their brains at the door.” With that warning, the three of us started cycling down the road that would lead us out of the airport and back to the hotel where the others were waiting. We rode on the left side of the road: it felt a little odd at first, but after nearly being run over twice during my stay in London, at least I had begun to get used to looking the right way when crossing. Before long we left the main road. As we cycled up the new dirt road I, at the back of the pack, couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering every which way. I was still in shock that I was in Africa.
We arrived at our hotel, a new, brick building, surrounded by a green lawn, enclosed by an iron fence and gate. Nearby our two other companions, Maxine and Doug, were sitting at a table under an umbrella drinking pop and relaxing. They had both been here for a day already, and seemed pretty comfortable. Doug is a professional photographer — this is his fifth tour with David. Maxine is a geologist, and she flew down on the spur of the moment. Everyone seems very easy-going and friendly — a nice group of well-travelled people (well, except for me). While we were all together David lectured us on safety and culture and then we headed in for a buffet. Somewhere along the way it came out that it was Christine’s 30th birthday today!
The lunch was great! We were served by waiters: potatoes, rice, beef, veggies, fruit, etc. (Since my arrival I had been feeling very pampered.) By the end the meal I was quite full. After lunch we brought the bikes into the room, which Doug and I were sharing. It was very small with two twin beds — we had to move one of them a bit just to get the bikes in. The room was new, clean, and had a toilet and shower… even a phone and a fan. Christine, Maxine and David were in a larger room across the hall. While the rest of us settled in, Christine napped.
When it was time to go Christine refused to get up, despite earlier having requested to be woken. We decided to leave her and all of us walked down to the Botanical Garden. Along the way we found a map shop–it was a big cement building, and inside it reminded me of the buildings you always see in those Mexican films. We then walked to the gates of the garden. Along the road a youth came up beside us — beside me, mostly. He followed us into the park, made conversation and pointed things out, explaining what things were and what they were used for. I felt uncomfortable with his presence–I just wanted to look at things — but listened politely anyway. The park was full of trees and plants, and a dirt road wound its way through them all. As we strolled Doug took some pictures (2000 UGS to do so, which I didn’t have the money or desire to pay) and Maxine and David rattled off an impressive amount of information about trees, plants and birds, most of which was well beyond my faculties.
As we left, our “guide” — the youth that had followed us along — requested payment for his “services”. The three of us walked on, pretending not to hear. I had no money to give him, and even if I had, I hadn’t really felt comfortable feeling obligated to listen to him tell us about things — I had done it out of politeness, and it hadn’t occurred to me it was a business venture. I suspect the others felt the same way. While we feigned obliviousness we could hear David explain to him that he shouldn’t expect payment for a service that we hadn’t asked for. I felt a little bad that he had wasted his time. I guess what was the whole idea.
We rested at the hotel and after a little while went out for dinner. David led us up the road where the buildings were congregated together like on small-town main streets. We entered one of them, a restaurant. The lighting inside was dim, and there was only one other group there besides us — a table of Africans talking quietly. The menu was limited, and we all ended up getting tilapia and fries. When the meal came David gave a demonstration on deboning a whole tilapia. In addition to the meal Christine and I had a Bell Ugandan beer each — a decent pale ale. When we left it was quiet outside and very, very dark. I had no sense of direction, and had no clue where we were going as David led us back to the hotel. At one point we crossed through an arch over the road that was all lit up, the lone bit of light in the darkness.
Back at the hotel I made use of the shower by washing my clothes — mud spattered from London, but that’s another story — and packed up my khakis and dress shirt, which I decided not to bring on the bike. It was warm that night, but comfortable. The lodging wasn’t much different from what I would expect in Canada, but they would get more rustic shortly.