This is, no doubt, the most memorable travel experience I have lived in my years on the road. And it is not related to a high end luxury resort, a magical moment, an incredible human connection or a unique journey but about that time when I almost died on the road, in the rain, at 120km/hour at the back of an off-road boda-boda bike in Uganda.
The story goes like this.
I was supposed to go to Paris for a wedding for the weekend, from Uganda. The journey involved 3 flights – each way! From Kampala to Nairobi, to Amsterdam to Paris.
As it usually happens, when it rains in Kampala the traffic is bad, terribly bad. I had been sitting at the back of a taxi for 30min and we had not moved an inch. I always wondered how it is possible that places like Uganda, where rain is a daily affair, are not prepared in any way to deal with a few drops. Every time, the country comes to a halt. But I learned to appreciate it is the way things are in Africa: the daily mysteries go unanswered.
So sitting at the back of that taxi and shifting around anxiously I started to ponder about my alternatives. The flight had cost me a small fortune because I was flying business and, although the couple getting married were not friends of mine, I really wanted to experience the magic of weddings. Who doesn’t like attending a couple’s big day, see their love and participate in the celebration? And in Paris, of all romantic places!
My choices were limited. Given that the ride to the airport in the city of Entebbe was about an hour and we were not more than 2h from departure time I had to do something radical or resign to missing the wedding. I saw one of the very popular Ugandan boda-boda or motorbike taxis through the window and I had a moment of insane clarity. Boda-boda receive their name from the English “Border-Border” because they are used to take people from one country border to the other at immigration points.
Determined and without even blinking, I asked the taxi driver to take my suitcase back to the hotel I would be returning to on Monday, I searched for my pair of stilettos from the suitcase and stuffed them, together with my wash bag, inside my purse, I pulled the computer bag and jumped off the taxi. I offered the boda-boda driver twice the regular amount for the airport ride, $100, which is a fortune in Uganda, with the condition that he would get me there within 45min. He nodded and I was already at the back of his motorbike on my way to the airport, handbag hanging on one side, laptop bag on the other.
But with the rush and the quick decision I had not thought about a few critical things.
First, I was wearing a cream colour suit, in the rain, at the back of a very filthy off-road motorbike with mud splashing everywhere. It did not look pretty. My legs were resting next to the exhaust and as much as I was hiding behind him I was getting splashed and stained with the general pollution collected by the rain.
Secondly, in order for us to get to the airport in 45min in the very windy and potholed road he had to be driving really fast, and overtaking, and not stopping for anything. We were zigzagging on the road, overtaking right and left, I was frightened to death and I really thought, on several occasions, that we were going to die. What was I thinking when I decided to jump into the back of his bike?
Against all odds, we made it, alive and in one piece, and barely on time. But, to my surprise, the authorities had decided to close the airport building because, due to the rain, most people had arrived late and were all crammed outside, by the entrance, yelling and pushing to be allowed into the airport. To avoid the crowds of complaining passengers they had decided to close the airport. So, despite the fast and dangerous ride I wasn’t allowed in.
Because I was clearly a foreigner, I managed to sneak in through the mess and the crowds and inside the terminal building. But, as I walked up to the check in counter thinking that my adventure had finally come to an end, I could tell something was wrong. The flight was closed!
I just could not put up with the stress anymore. I was wet, absolutely filthy, tired and shaking. On top, I had been on a bike for 45min without a helmet and my hair was resembling a mop. So when she said the flight was closed, I broke down into tears.
Destiny wanted me on board that flight though. With the confusion, I had forgotten to mention that my friend going to the wedding with me had checked me in online when I realised how bad the traffic situation was and they had printed the boarding passes of those who checked in online before closing the flight so my boarding pass was sitting there, on the counter!
After getting it, I asked a nice looking guy who had seen the entire scene whether he could go out through the crowd and pay my driver who was still patiently waiting outside still wearing his helmet. And with this last piece of the puzzle I went through immigration and onto the plane.
I can just imagine what the passengers sitting next to me in the Business Class area of the KLM flight must have thought. I had no clothes to change into, my hair was fitlhy and I had no luggage other than a pair of very high heels peaking through my handbag. It really looked like something very strange had happened to me. On top of that, my cream color suit jacket was bi-colour now. The sleeves, as they were exposed to the pollution and rain were a dark grey whereas the rest had been protected by the driver’s body so was a lighter shade of grey. I looked like a clown.
I eventually made it to Paris but, since my friend, who was bringing me clothes, was not yet there I needed to get my clothes cleaned and have a shower. After the very stressful journey I wanted to treat myself and, why not, splash on something expensive and useless just to feel better. It’s admittedly, a very mundane and material thing to do, but I urgently needed to calm down and a shopping spree always keeps one’s mind occupied for a while.
To satiate my anxiety I headed to Lafayette and tried to buy a Dior clutch as I had left mine in Uganda. To top my already nightmarish experience the very snobbish shop assistant must have assumed there was no way I could afford it. And to be honest, I would have thought the same if a woman with dirty clothes approached me pretending to spend a large sum on an unnecessary item. So when my credit card was rejected by the issuer it dawned that the adventure was not over yet.
American Express had decided to block my card because, in the previous 24h, it had been used in Uganda, Nairobi, Amsterdam and now Paris so they had assumed it had been stolen. Little did they know the ordeal I had been through or they would not have dared blocking it! This gave a little “I knew it” moment to the shop assistant, only to realise she had misjudged me when I explained what Amex had told me and the transaction went through.
Eventually I got my clean clothes, the wedding went well and I made my trip back without any mishap.