Thanksgiving in Fort Portal (Part I)
Caption: A box of cheeping chicks aboard our bus out of Mbarara
We watched the Steve Martin movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles during our couch potato holiday in Fort Portal. The resemblance to our own holiday was uncanny: multiple modes of transportation over a short period of time, a serious lack of money on the road, a sometimes near-manic desperation to see family, and two incompatible travel partners. Ok, totally just kidding about the last one.
We left early Thursday morning on a big Jaguar bus heading to Kampala, Uganda. The plan was to switch busses in Mbarara, Uganda and go up to Fort Portal from there. The hours between Kigali and Mbarara were nice. The bus was relatively roomy and we got into one of our famously nerdy discussions. I had just finished reading Orwell’s 1984 the day before and was thinking about the apparent subconscious fear present in Western humans that our emotions present a weakness. That idea in the book seemed to correspond with the control tactics of some fictional “bad guy” characters that I could think of in movies and books so I bounced the idea off of Robin. It wasn’t long before we were alternating between discussing the idea and looking out the window to catch glimpses of the mist covered landscape. Little did we know that our ivory tower discussion was about to crumble into the heat of immediate decisions.
Once in Mbarara, we were told that the bus to Fort Portal was just across the street and it was leaving “right now!” Robin called me out of the bathroom line and we ran to catch the bus. They hustled us on as the bus pulled out into the road. Then we discovered that the bus was packed full and we could only stand the aisle. Not comfortable, but at least we were traveling in the right direction…or not. The conductor informed us, just outside of town, that this bus didn’t actually go to Fort Portal but! he would make sure that we were dropped off at a place where we could catch a connecting bus. Great.
A woman at my elbow tapped me on the arm, “Do you want my seat? I’m about to get off.” As soon as she stood up I threw myself into the seat hoping to get there before anyone else who was crammed in around me. In the process I slid down the sharp metal edge of the upturned armrest and slit a section of the seat of my pants. It hurt, and actually drew blood, but I was not longer standing.
The bus traveled through Queen Elizabeth game park and we tried to get excited about seeing some warthogs and antelope-type creatures, but apprehension was mounting over the next leg of our journey. We had already been on the road for seven hours.
The bus eventually dropped us at a curve in the road. There was a building or two and lots of open space and a lone white taxi with two men who, the conductor assured us, would take good care of us. We tried to determine their price and thought we would have just enough money if we exchanged some American dollars in Fort Portal. The mood in the taxi was somewhat jubilant: we were so close to our final destination.
As we drove along I started to notice little white markers like tombstones by the road. All had the letters “FTP” at the top and a kilometer number on the bottom. And I started to notice that they were placed every kilometer. And they started with the number 130. It became a very long ride.
Once in Fort Portal, we had two problems: one was how to pay for the taxi ride, which now cost $100, and the other was how to find Jeff and Cheryl. Somehow, Cheryl and I had managed to converse about the whole trip without ever exchanging phone numbers. So I stayed at the car to reassure the driver that we *would* find our family (and be able to pay him) while Robin chased down every white person he saw on the street to ask if they knew Jeff Cash.
Pulling into the Cash’s compound after eleven hours on the road was definitely one of the most memorable events of this term.