Fort Portal, Uganda. “Climb on top. Let’s go.” The words of the heavyset man were accompanied by his gesture toward the top of his fully loaded truck. It wasn’t your normal truck though. This was a modified flatbed with rails built up on all four sides to allow whomever uses it to transfer a far greater amount of goods than the manufacturer originally intended. I glanced upward to see 20 people already waiting on top of the cargo filled truck. “OK” I replied and scurried up the rails, finding some space toward the front on top of an oversized burlap sack full of beans. Wiggling around a bit, I created nice little depression in the sack. With my feet dangling over the side of the truck I settled in for the two hour trip to Ntoroko. “This is Africa”, I though to myself, and while I was still a “muzungu” to most everyone on the continent, to my 20 fellow passengers I had made a pretty big step toward fitting in with the local culture.
The above trip was one leg of a three part trip from Fort Portal, Uganda to Bunia, DRC. Twice now in the past month I have made the trek to Fort Portal to retrieve our Sports4HOPE packages being held there at the post office. Yes, we have a P.O. box in Uganda even though we live in Congo. This is because Congo does not have a government sponsored mail service. The only option for shipping into Congo is through a private shipping company and even that message is unreliable. We have heard many stories from other expats living here about receiving mail years after it was shipped due to customs hold ups and a lack of organized address/street naming system. Having said this, most people whom want to receive international mail while in Congo pick it up in Uganda. So this was my mission. Take a motorcycle from Bunia to Kasenyi, catch a boat from Kasenyi, DRC to Ntoroko, Uganda (preferably the fast one hour boat opposed to the slow four hour boat), then find a motorcycle again to take me from Ntoroko to Fort Portal. With a little luck the whole trip can be completed in five hours and cost as little as $30. However with just a little misfortune, the trip can take days, and cost as much as $350.
My first experience in Fort Portal was in September a couple days after arriving in Africa for the first time. We stopped here between Kampala and Ntoroko to spend the night and open a P.O. box. Still experiencing the initial culture shock of only having been in Africa for three days, I didn’t fully appreciate Fort Portal. It was a little more open than Kampala and had more greenery, but still made me a bit uneasy after dark. I saw it as a place very different, with much less to offer than the Western country from which I had come. However, upon returning to Fort Portal, after having spend three months in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it truly seemed like paradise. The paved roads were the first thing that hit me. Congo has recently been ranked as having the worst roads in the world, basically meaning there are none, just rutted up and washed out dirt paths that have been slowly getting worse since colonial times. The next thing I now recognized that I hadn’t before is the infrastructure and public services. I reaped the benefits of reliable running water, constant electricity, city lights, and a police force that made the area more safe rather than less safe, as is often Congo. The grocery and convenient stores actually resemble grocery stores in which you can walk around with a basket and chose your own items rather than stand in front of a counter and point to things you would like. On top of that you have nice restaurants, reliable news and radio stations, and of course the post office.
Another new experience of Fort Portal was actually shopping. I’m not typically a big shopper, but since I was there a couple days before Christmas I had to take advantage of being in Uganda and do some Christmas shopping. This quickly became a problem for reasons opposite of what I had expected. I knew that Uganda would have a much bigger and better selection for potential Christmas presents but I still expected to have trouble finding good gifts. Instead I found myself wanting to buy everything I came across. My thoughts were, “Oh, they don’t have this in Bunia. I better get it while I am here.” or “Selina has been looking for this, I should go ahead and get it for her.” And if they did have it in Bunia I was thinking, “This is much more expensive in Bunia, I better get it now.” Needless to say I bought much more stuff than I had intended and the Sports4HOPE team a very plentiful Christmas.
The last thing, and the one I enjoyed most was the cleanliness and green space of Fort Portal. On my way back and forth from the post office to my hotel to the market. I discovered a gem: a little resort-like hotel, fully adorned with an outside patio for eating, a couple separate tiers and courtyards for gatherings and events, quaint little shops for local arts and crafts, and a bunch of muzungus all over the place. Immediately I felt the need to have a cup of coffee and relax for a bit. So for the next hour and a half I sat amongst the trees and bushes of the manmade landscape and drank my coffee while overlooking a babbling brook and listening to classic American love songs. Refreshed and re-energized, I was able to get back out on the streets and in the markets to complete the intense day of Christmas shopping and mail retrieval.
Back on top of Salim’s truck, we are now driving through the mountains down toward the lake. To the right of the truck the road drops steeply off and down the side of the mountain. To the left the mountain seems to jut straight up into the sky. In front and behind us huge dump trucks, backhoes, and earth compactors are working on the road. Every once in a while you will see a Chinaman strolling around with a wide-brimmed hat carrying a notebook and directing the local Ugandans in the work. It’s a truly amazing project to see. The Ugandan government has contacted Chinese engineers in a seven year project to construct a road from Fort Portal to Lamia. For me, sitting there in amazement atop of my sack of beans, I see the project as one that epitomizes what humans are capable of accomplishing. The sides of these mountains have slopes steeper that 45 degrees, yet there is a perfectly level and uniformly wide road being constructed that serpentinely winds its way around the mountains gradually making its way down toward the lake. Once we are out of the mountains we will travel through a game reserve for about and hour before arriving at Lake Albert in Ntoroko. Troops of baboons, tribes of monkey, herd of impalas, and passels of wild hogs are going about their daily lives all around us as we cruise down the road (yes, those are the technical group names for those respective animals). Guinea Fowl are notorious for hanging out in the road until the vehicles are about 20 yards away before scurrying into the bush as the last minute, but its not uncommon to see the other animals as well enjoying the the morning sun in the middle of the smooth dirt roads. On my most recent trip an enormous water buffalo covered in mud was standing in the road and refused to move. It wasn’t until we had almost fully stopped the truck and had been laying on the horn for 15 seconds before he panicked and darted off of the road flinging mud everywhere in the process and nearly taking out the front bumper of Salim’s truck.
As you can see from above I have thoroughly enjoyed my two trips to Fort Portal. I have always welcomed the opportunity to travel, but these trips are exciting for a new reason. Instead of the usual trip from the US, one of the most developed nations in world, to a developing nation for adventure or mission work, I am now traveling from what what is ranked as the least developed country in the world (DRC-187), to a country ranked 26 spots higher on the same UNDP list (Uganda-161). The difference is as stark as night and day, and it is revealed in numerous ways in everyday life. I once brushed off these countries as not possessing the amenities I felt were necessary to live comfortably by Western standards, but now I see them in a different light, realizing that comfort and development of countries and societies is all relative. While I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having standards of living based on the USA and other European countries, it is very important to be sensitive and open to the standard of living and indigenous luxuries of each and every country. My favorite Mocha Coconut Frappuccinos still may not be an option, even in Fort Portal, but the hot shower and a juicy steak were truly appreciated, especially since I was traveling on my birthday.