Dec. 30, 2011
After spending twelve unscheduled hours at our layover stop, I arrive in Uganda. A fellow flight commiserator with whom I’d swapped reasons for travel bids me farewell with this advice: leave behind something at the orphanage–a skill, a lesson, a service–so they benefit from my having visited long after I leave.
She also warns me of becoming too attached to the children or letting them become too attached to me. All they need is one more loss in their lives, she reminds me.
After acknowledging that Ethiopian Airlines has sent along their griping passengers without their luggage, I negotiate what I think is a fair price with the taxi driver to Kampala. Seated next to him in the passenger seat–he is to my right, I am to his left–I sense that I could be playing the victim in a trite horror film when he pulls into a petrol station carrying a single pump, lit only by the night’s moon. No storefront. No neighboring structure. Just flatness and darkness all around.
A gas station employee approaches the car and the driver gets out. They greet. They exchange a few words. I concoct a vague plan of escape and have accepted its futility by the time the car is done fueling and the driver steps back in.
“Where you from?” he asks.
“America?” He seems pleased, and perhaps also surprised because I’m clearly not Anglo. But he doesn’t ask questions.
He slides a cassette into the tape deck, and we begin to drive to the soundtrack of Judy Boucher love ballads. Only the language of the music, catered for me, is familiar now as we drive down a two lane road. Headlights cast shadows of pedestrians walking along the invisible shoulder, no wall or barrier to protect them from being struck by a wayward driver. They appear to navigate their way comfortably through the pitch black, save the headlights of our car illuminating where their feet will go next.
Once in the city proper, the din of nightlife in Kampala rustles the stillness in the car. Club music and clinking beer bottles. Leggy legs taking their time crossing traffic.
The hostel where I’m bunking for the night sits a few meters outside of the localized pocket of activity. We pull up to the gated compound, closed and guarded for the night.
“I have a reservation here,” I tell the gatekeeper who peers into the car with tired eyes. He’s dressed like a Soviet military serviceman in the winter, complete with fur-trimmed hat.
“Hello. How are you?”
I’d read it in the guide book: they greet in Uganda. Strangers properly acknowledge strangers. They say “hello” and “how are you.” I retract from being so American, so to-the-point, and start again.
He has no record of my reservation, he tells me, pointing to the names listed on a sheet of notepad paper. I look at my watch. 2:14 a.m. I keep at bay the creeping notion that I wasn’t thinking when I decided to come here, to Africa. I ask him to help me out, a tired foreigner, 24 hours into my travels. I have no alternative, no backup plan, no idea where else I’d go. Perhaps he can let me have a room reserved for one of those names on that paper. What are the chances of them showing up at this hour?
He is kind. I get out of the car. I strap on my bag–the one I carried on the plane. I follow him across the compound. Again, no light. (How do people see?) Past a dormitory, down some steps, past clusters of lodging, around the bend, to a single room in the furthest corner of the compound. He removes the padlock on the door and hands me the key.
Good night. Sulu burunji.
Later, lying under a mosquito net, film of travel grit washed off of my skin, I listen to the sound of stillness. A single lightbulb casts a grayish gloom across the cement floor. I search again for bravery and wonder about the alternative of my decision to having come here: that is, not having come. Blanketed instead by an incomparable sense of security as I sleep in my sleigh bed in a cream-colored room, nestled under a down comforter that leaves me desperate for another hour or two or a hundred when the alarm goes off. Lolling through the morning to do it all over again. To climb back onto the filthy train to get to the job I want so badly to leave so I can be precisely here. Alone, but not utterly.
Be brave, I tell myself. Take advantage of my freedom to fear. The liberating option to not know where I am or what I’m doing. Because at least I know why I’m doing it. I just want to do good and meaningful things.
Soo Kim lives and writes in New York City. She is a communications specialist for the federal government, which allows her the freedom to get out of her own head during the day. She holds an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University and appreciates being able to apply the same literary concepts of fiction to her nonfiction writing. Her writing can be found at www.nofeardaughter.wordpress.com.