Friday, September 4, 2009

Getting Around

Transportation here is an interesting phenomenon.
There is no actual public transportation, but there are alternatives.

Most local transportation is in the form of a bodaboda. It is said that the term comes from this area, which is 10 minutes from the Uganda-Kenya border. Supposedly, it was the only way to get across the border, and people would request their destination, "border border." Sounds like a myth to me, but everyone repeats it.

There is a bicycle boda, which is usually a chinese-made bike with a brightly colored cushion on the back. They are ubiquitous, and there are drivers sitting around waiting for fares nearly everywhere. It is the slowest and least comfortable form of transportation, but also the cheapest. A typical ride is USh 500 (25 cents). I don't have a great photo of one, but you can see one on the left side of this photo.

Typically, you sit behind the driver with one leg on either side, and there are pegs to rest your feet. The problem is, if you are wearing a skirt, it is more prudent to ride side saddle, and this can be difficult and uncomfortable on a bicycle boda. One ride I took was on a very tall bicycle, and the driver did not keep the bike steady on the uneven ground - I was so afraid that I would fall off that I made the driver stop and somehow got on the regular way, still managing to have the skirt cover me.

Faster, more comfortable and more expensive (USh 1000 - or 50 cents per ride) are the motorcycle bodabodas. They are not quite as ubiquitous as the bicycle bodas, but still very common and easy to flag down on the main road. Usually outside the hospital gates, about 5-10 bicycle bodas and 2-3 motorcycle bodas sit waiting for fares.

These are much easier to ride side-saddle if needed, and I prefer to take them for convenience and comfort.

I have seen all manner of things transported on a bicycle or motorcycle. I've seen a family of four squished on the back, huge boxes, bundles of six-foot-long pieces of wood, several large whole fish, a full-size wooden bed frame, chickens, and a live pig wrapped in leaves and squealing bloody murder.

As mzungus, when we have lots of things to carry, we avoid the crazy strap-everything-to-a-boda option, and get a special hire. These are four-door cars available in town for a flat rate of USh 5000 ($2.50). It's hard to find them on the road, but you can find them in town pretty easily.

The last transportation option is a Matatu. It is a white van with blue stripes that runs a predetermined route. You can take them from town to town, or sometimes from country to country. We took one to get to Mbale. Usually you go to where you know they leave from (a gas station or central corner in town) and the fare collector repeats a long string of locations (presumably destinations), ending with the final destination. In our case, going to Mbale, it sounded like "Balboobalbananalabadoobasibanlanarasafa Mbale!" You can also flag one down on the road - the fare collector usually hangs outside the window and shouts the destination in case you're interested. They drive with almost intentional insanity, and seem held together by a thread. As you careen and lurch over potholes and dirt roads, you hear the creaking and squealing of rusty metal.

There is no schedule; the Matatus wait at their pick-up spot until full. This could be a few minutes or a few hours. In Kenya and Mozambique, I remember they would squeeze 22-25 people into seats designed for 13 people - every time you thought that they couldn't possibly fit one more person, they squeezed in 5. Some people sat on the floor facing backward, essentially in the crotch of the person in front of them.
In Uganda, limits are strictly enforced, so they can't fit as many in, which is a blessing. They still put 4 people on a seat designed for 3, but it's better than 10.
Matatus are not known for their safety. There are loads of fatal traffic accidents involving them, but there are few alternatives. Appropriately "Matatu" is only 1 letter off from the Swahili word for problem - matata.

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