Filed by Ashley Rowland
It should have been a warning when we stepped out of our matatu and walked to the bus ticket office without a single sales pitch being thrown our way.
We had arrived in Kisoro, a colorless town just across the border from Rwanda, on a drizzly evening and barely missed the last bus to Mbarara, a town four hours away. We had friends there and hoped to spend the night at their house and wash our clothes, which were filthy after a day of trekking gorillas in the Rwandan mountains. I began trying to bargain for a taxi, but the drivers just shrugged and said they couldnt make the trip that night.
Only one person agreed to take us Emmanuel, a rail-thin, cocky man who looked no older than 22 or 23 and didnt have a drivers license.
In Uganda, all white people are called muzungus, and, Africans believe, all are rich. When a muzungu with a backpack or suitcase appears, he or she is swarmed by drivers who want to sell a ride on a boda-boda, or scooter; a matatu, one of the crowded, rickety vans that are the most affordable means of long-distance transportation for Ugandans; a taxi, or a charter bus.
As we climbed into the car a worn sedan that Emmanuel swore was five years old, but looked about 30 someone threw a jack into the truck. His friend, a slightly less cocky Ugandan named Pious ( Like the Pope, he said) drove.
Soon after we left, the road began to curve and rise steeply. We were going into one of the tallest mountain chains in Uganda. There were dizzying cliffs covered in green matoke, or banana, trees, and no sign of civilization except for a few mud houses perched precipitously on the mountainsides. When the sun began setting over the volcanos, it was breathtaking enough to be on postcard.
There were also plenty of deep, potholes on the narrow dirt road. That didnt slow Pious, who seemed to enjoy looking in his rearview mirror and watching me clutch the door handle every time he swerved around a crater-sized pothole to the outer edge of the road, coming within inches of the cliff.
Did I mention there were almost no guardrails?
That was the first time in my life I thought I might actually die. We asked the driver to slow down repeatedly, and he did after we threatened not to pay him.
But the trip didnt get any easier. In fact, the roads got narrower, the potholes worse, and the skies darker. We could only see how nauseatingly high we were when we rounded a bend and caught a glimpse of the valley far, far below us in the moonlight.
About an hour into the trip, the driver stopped. We had a flat tire.
Thank goodness for spares. After changing the tire, we began to drive again a little lopsided on our doughnut, but at least it forced us to go more slowly.
Then it started to rain. We stopped again. One of our windshield wipers didnt work, Pious said. He got out and tried to tie one of the blades to the wiper, but never bothered turning them on again.
So we drove on, more slowly than before. The rain grew harder, and Pious and Emmanuel quit talking. Pious hunched over the steering wheel, with Emmanuel occasionally wiping fog from the windshield so he could see.
About a week earlier, we had driven to Gulu, a city in northern Uganda that is in the middle of a war zone where rebels sporadically attack cars and buses.
We made it to Gulu without incident. But as we rounded a hairpin turn in the southern Ugandan mountains outside Kisoro, we stopped suddenly. Thats when I really thought I was going to die: In the middle of nowhere, there was a solid wall of people rushing towards us, their arms outstretched as if ready to fight. There was nowhere we could go.
Turned out that in the dim headlights, its easy to mistake a herd of Ankole cattle in the distance their horns curving several feet long for a band of rebels. Fortunately the cattle werent too dangerous, though we had to stop while they ambled around our car.
The rain never stopped. But the road eventually began to flatten as we left the mountain range and entered the outskirts of Kabale, a town halfway between Kisoro and Mbarara. The ride, however, was still jarring, and we were creeping so slowly that a girl on a bicycle peddled past us.
When we arrived in Kabale, we asked Pious to let us out at a hostel. It was nearly midnight, and what should have been a two-hour trip had taken more than four hours.
Pious and Emmanuel werent traveling any further that night, either. When they got out of the car, we saw why: A second tire had literally blown up, half of it hanging shreds from the rim.
E-mail Ashley Rowland at firstname.lastname@example.org