Monday, August 31, 2009

A Mate of a Different Color

The news of the weekend is that I bought a moped.

Mopeds are hard to find - everyone has motorcycles here, and they like them fancy, new and fast. I didn't want any of those things - I wanted quaint, slow and safe. I was picturing something Vespa-like.
By asking around, and stopping people on the street who had what I wanted, I discovered that my 2 options were the Yamaha Mate or the Honda Super Cub. They are not available here new - only reconditioned (read old). I couldn't buy them in Tororo, so I decided to try Kampala.
My first trip to Kampala was unsuccessful - we got pointed in every direction but never found anyone selling any moving vehicles whatsoever. I was told that I might be able to get them in Jinja or Mbale, which are both closer to Tororo than Kampala.
On my second trip to Kampala, I found the neighborhoods Katwe and Ndeeba, where all of the mechanics seem to reside. A few places had lots of Yamaha Mates, but all seemed to want 2.2 million shillings ($1100) which was more than I had expected. I could probably negotiate down to USh 1.8 or 1.9, but I'd also have the problem of how to get the scooter back to Tororo. I later found out that Katwe and Ndeeba are very, very dangerous neighborhoods, diminishing my motivation to go back.

Mbale is a bigger town than Tororo, only 45 minutes away. Scott and I decided to do a fact-finding mission this weekend. We took a Matatu from the Shell gas station in town, on which we met a woman named Rebecca who wanted to be our friend. I liked her, and she read over my shoulder the grant proposal I am writing, asking me about "placental malaria." She had had to drop out of studying to be a nursing aide for lack of money.
The woman who sat next to Scott was dressed to the nines, in a lavender satin strapless gown with rhinestone embroidery, and her hair was fantastic. Her son (he looked about 7 or 8) was in a tan three-piece suit with a pink shirt. When she got off, we looked across the road and realize that there was a big fancy wedding that she was going to.

In Mbale, the first thing we did was have lunch at an Indian restaurant. I had Paneer Chicken, and Scott had Goat Muchomo.

Next, we walked around Mbale. It was extremely hot. I bought a sweat rag in a "supermarket" because I had regrettably neglected to bring one. We finally found a store selling a few motorcycles, but they didn't have any mopeds. They said we had to go to Kampala, and sort of offered to let us pay money down and they would get one for us. Sketchy, yes.
On the street, we found a guy driving a Mate, and we asked him where to get it. He pointed behind him, to a side street. There was another, even smaller, motorcycle shop, but no mopeds. We walked further down the side street, and realized that it was full of mechanic shops. There were men welding and drilling and sawing and sparks flying and whatnot - and of course no safety equipment whatsoever.

We turned into one cramped area packed with mechanics, motorcycles and motorcycles parts. Some of the men were wearing royal blue uni-suits open in front with chests exposed proudly. All heads turned to stare at us as we walked in (or so I felt). It was like West Side Story meets Grease Lightning meets Bad minus the singing and dancing. As we walked in, I turned to Scott, very intimidated, and said "This is going to be interesting."

I approached the burliest of the mechanics, and told him I was looking for a Yamaha Mate to buy. There was a flurry of activity - he dashed over to one storefront, then people started making phone calls, and they said "He is coming! He is coming!" Apparently meaning the man selling the Yamaha Mate. Until he arrived, we were the center of attention.

He did finally show up - this was the aforementioned Pory. He showed us a beat-up old Mate (they are all beat-up and old), and he did a short test-drive with both of us on the back. (There was lots of laughing and jeering as we pulled out of the mechanic area). He wouldn't let us drive it, though, because we admitted we had no idea how.

The asking price was less than in Kampala - USh 1.5 million ($750), and I tried to negotiate for 1 million given that the front brake was broken. Instead, he offered to fix the brake and some other things.
We debated it. I figured it was no less reliable than the reconditioned ones in Kampala, and a lot cheaper and more convenient. If I get screwed, then I guess it was part of the adventure.

We went to the bank to withdraw the cash, came back, and had to wait for Pory to arrive again. At this point it was almost 4pm, and we wanted to leave by 5pm to beat the sunset - it would take more than an hour to drive back to Kampala.
Pory had his men fix the front brake, except they didn't start for a long while - they were working on another motorcycle. Finally he cajoled them into working on it. It turned out to be more involved than he thought - really the entire brake was missing, not just the cable to work it. But he replaced the whole thing. It took a lot of adjusting and removing and replacing the wheel.
Scott watched closely and learned how to do it, and by the end, he was buddies with Pory and the mechanics (it took over an hour). The rest of the mechanics in the area were no longer interested in staring at us (we were old news by then), and I started talking to these 5 muslim women in headscarves running one of the auto-parts shops. The women called me "mzungu" as if it was my name. As in "Mzungu, do you prefer a red helmet or a blue one?" They were serious business women and not interested in chatting with me or answering my questions about what it's like to run a shop as women surrounded by mechanics. I bought 2 helmets from them.

Once the bike was ready, we paid Poly, and then we had to wait for his son to arrive with the registration. While we waited, I asked a group of mechanics if I could take a picture of the whole area, including them. There was much laughter and debate, and the answer was Yes, No, Yes, No, OK Yes take it!

I showed them the picture, and there was even more laughter and excitement, at which point everyone wanted their individual portrait. I took a closer group shot instead.

Then one of the guys announced, "I want a picture with THIS GUY!" pointing to Scott. He ran up and I took a picture with him (left), Scott and Pory (right).

As we drove off on our Mate, we got lots of exuberant waves goodbye - it was a little like leaving Oz.
We drove home to Tororo, Scott learning how to drive the thing remarkably quickly. Thankfully, there was very little traffic. The only scary moment was when we were trapped between a Matatu and a goat. I voted for hitting the goat (dinner!) but Scott skillfully maneuvered us out of the jam, avoiding any mammalian injury.
The drive home took over an hour, and was a bit uncomfortable for the vibration of the Mate, the bumping over potholes, and the fact that I had nowhere to put my left foot. Nonetheless it was fun and exhilarating, and I was glad to be going no more than 30 miles an hour.

Soon to follow: video of me driving my new Mate.

1 comment:

sarah jo said...

Sweet ride, lady! I love this story. And I love Scott's nonchalant picture series (lunch and new buddies). I am imagining you scooting and smiling wide.