Thursday, May 3, 2012

Overnight in Pian Upe

Travelling within Europe is an easy affair. They have an excellent rail, road, sea and air network and in England where I lived for a number of years, getting from one corner of the British Isles to the other was a far simpler affair than getting from Kampala in the south to Moroto in northern Uganda.


But we never felt that the system was good enough for, we used to complain. If British Rail was late by five minutes, there would be a storm of complaints. If Eurostar, the high speed train that hurtles from London to Paris left two minutes behind schedule, again voices would be raised.

On one occasion when I was travelling from London to Amsterdam, Ryan Air was running an hour behind schedule. And of course, everybody complained. I didn’t, because Heathrow is a vast airport with a good number of duty free shops and of course loads of pubs.

With that, why would I complain? I mean, I would if I was delayed at Entebbe Airport where a beer in the only bar/cafeteria in the departure lounge is close to 6k, and duty free shops – if at all they can be called duty free shops, are more expensive than ordinary shops in Jo’burg, London or New York.

One thing I learnt about the Brits, whilst they will always be the first to complain, sometimes their complaints, need to be questioned.

A few years ago, a story on Sky News went along these lines. It was the height of the summer holidays and the trains were full as families headed off from London to the coastal towns. In one carriage, Teenage Couple got caught up in lust and rather than wait till they got to their hotel room, they decided to have sex right there – in a carriage full of kids running up and down, grandparents, mums and dads – the works.

Guess what, nobody complained. Nobody raised eyebrows and nobody relocated their kids to another carriage and out of view of the amorous love makers.

However, once the couple were done and had tidied themselves up, they lit up to smoke and, that’s when all hell broke loose! Everybody complained. Grand Ma and Grand Pa went livid while Mum and Dad spat fire for not only were Teenage Couple smoking in front of the kids, it was also a ‘No Smoking’ carriage.

Hmm, let’s pause there. Love making in a train and in full view of other passengers and smoking in a no smoking carriage, which one offends most?

So I am back in Uganda and decide to spend two months travelling round the country. And my preferred mode of travel? Train.

At the train station on Jinja Road, I find Fat Mama tucked into her lunch – fish, groundnut sauce, matooke and sweet potatoes.

Let’s pause again. As I do my proof reading, I am trying to figure out what contribution Fat Mama’s lunch has done to enrich this cowardly tale. Do you feel the way I do?

Anyway, Fat Mama barely glanced at my travel itinerary. Rather, she laughed and in the process, spewed out driblets of groundnut sauce onto my neatly typed out travel plans. Here is the conversation that followed.

Fat Mama: “You want to go to Moroto, Kabale, Kitgum and Fort Portal by train?”

TB: “Yeah, that’s the idea. What I need is the train time table and perhaps you could advise on the best travel options?”

Fat Mama: “When did you last see a train?”

TB: “You have lost me.”

Fat Mama: “There are no trains here.”

TB: “I think you have misunderstood me. I don’t want to travel today, perhaps mid next week?”

Fat Mama: “Like I said, there are no trains.”

It took a while to figure out what she was on about so plan B came into play: A commuter taxi.

My first trip was to Moroto. I don’t know why I choose Moroto – perhaps because it was so far up north and if my parents found out I was headed there and in the days when Joseph Kony was still doing his bizarre thing of cutting off lips and ears, it was bound to give them a heart attack.

It was a real adventure going up to Moroto by taxi and a far cry from travelling in an air-conditioned train, hurtling down a smooth four lane motorway or, flying with Ryan Air like I used to when I was still in England. This was a katogo – an overloaded taxi with everything short of a herd of goats.

One thing I discovered about travelling in a taxi with animals especially chickens and turkeys, is that they hardly make a sound. They simply bury their heads in their wings and keep mum. But what they will do is pupu en-mass and dios pupu at that, because it dribbled down the length of the taxi and messed up my bags.

The taxi of course, had its issues from numerous punctures to overheating to simply coming to a stop for no apparent reason. Again, I was not bothered because it was an adventure and I had never experienced anything like this in my life.

That was until the taxi decided it would go no further. We were near a small town called Pian Upe when it died so we had to walk a mile or so to get there. With my rucksack smeared with chicken and turkey dios of pupu slung on my back, we walked to Pian Upe where we were to spend the night and hopefully resume the journey the following day assuming the taxi had been repaired.

For a town seemingly no bigger than Kabalagala and in the middle of nowhere, it was bustling but only because it was playing host to a teacher’s conference and that meant every lodge was booked out.

No amount of grovelling could get me a room in a lodge and I say lodge, because Pian Upe only has lodges. Exasperated, I sat in the dimly lit reception of the best lodge and pondered my next move which came in the form of one of the teachers – a male teacher, who offered to share his room with me.

I would have ‘embraced’ him but there was a question that had to be answered before I accepted his offer. What was his sexual orientation? It was only when I saw his hands tear at the thighs of a more than ample woman that, I agreed.

Supper in Pian Upe was a delight. It was the first time that I had eaten rubber chicken for no matter how many times I chewed on it, it just never broke down. In the end it was a case of simply ripping chunks off the bone, swallowing them whole and drinking water to ease passage down my throat.

After the rubber chicken experience, I settled down to some beers with Male Teacher and Ample Thigh-ed Woman. It was nice talking to them for they gave me a history of Pian Upe including Moroto where, I was hopefully headed the following day.

And as the night wore on and the beers took their toll, Male Teacher lent over to me and whispered: “Can you wait a while before you come to the room? I need to take of Ample Thigh-ed Woman first.”

I couldn’t argue for he was doing me a favour. And so I sat in the bar drinking warmer than room temperature Bell beer as the clock ticked on. 11:00pm became midnight which became 1:00am. 1:00am became 2:00am and it was around 3:00am when he finally emerged all sexually satisfied and calling me to sleep.

While he had a bed, management of the lodge had laid out a mattress for me on the floor and it was no thicker than the latest I-Pad from Apple.

Worse, the pillow case was so stained that I had to cover it up with a t-shirt and as for the sheets, short of regurgitating my un-chewed and undigested rubber chicken at the thought of what stains might be on them, when I stretched out my legs, the sheets tore because they were so old and worn.

By the way, I did eventually figure out what contribution Fat Mama’s lunch had to the article. It boosted the word count.

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