As I have fewer than 24 hours left in Uganda, I feel pretty comfortable saying that my most recent trip was both the best and the worst experience I have had while in the country.
Ironically, the reason it was awful was because I went on a very expensive, high-end luxury tour that screwed me over left and right. Pieces of it (not in control of the tour company) were amazing, the the rest was so awful, that I must share. Don’t get me wrong, nothing awful in the “I lost a limb and am scarred for life” (much), in fact most of it in hindsight is very very funny. It just wasn’t at the time.
To begin with, the tour company (which will not be named here as I want to share the story without anyone getting fired) is HIGHLY recommended on user-boards like foders.com and tripadvisor.com. In fact, that company has not had a bad review among the dozens of people who reviewed them.
I don’t have a really good explanation for why my trip was so poor compared to their reviews. Either my experience was really an anomoly, or no one who has a bad experience has posted a review (I will when I get back to the US, but in a more circumspect version than this), or maybe because… As you’ve noticed, I try to alternate my travel between very low-end hostels and campsites most of the time, with the occasional luxury stint between. I like this because I meet a completely different mix of people that way. At the hostels it is mostly volunteers and students, at the high-end places I’ve met everyone from actors and entertainment executives from LA to a famous world cup soccer star from Italy who I only found out was famous was because I was having dinner with a gay italian couple I met on my gorilla trek and they recognized him). The Soccer Star and I had chatted a fair amount about the gorillas, but I had no idea who he was.
Anyway, because the luxury company was picking me up and dropping me off at low-end places, I sort of suspect they thought they could fob off a crappy, cheaper tour on me without me knowing the difference of what to expect when one pays … well, when one pays what I paid, which I won’t share as it’s too embarrasing given the experience I had.
I had been told to expect driver “A” at 7am, which was before the hostel opened up breakfast, so I had made provisions for some biscuits (cookies) to eat for breakfast so I could take my malaria pill. Of course, then the driver was late and it wasn’t “A” it was “X”. Now, this is Africa, lateness is to be expected somewhat, except every other tour I’d been on the driver had always been prompt. After 30 minutes I ended up calling the company, waking one of their staff who was unhappy, but not long after the driver arrived. OK, so I got up extra early and had cookies for breakfast for nothing. Big deal, right?
X arrived in a 12-year-old SUV with cracks in the windshield, a 100% non-functioning spedometer, and the SUV could only do around 5 km/hour going uphill on good paved roads (we were passed by fully-loaded matatus, which if you know the quality of a matatu, should really give you a sense of how bad it was), and the car broke down on the way. Now, again, this is Africa, breakdowns happen. Though what really pissed me off was when we went to the garage the driver told me “oh, this is just routine maintenance we do on all cars for long trips” even though I could very well see him pointing to a gauge and talking to the mechanic animatedly. A half our later he tells me they are replacing a part and it should take 40 minutes to fix. One and a half hours of sitting around the garage in the pouring rain later, we were on our way. Again, none of this is terribly odd for Africa, but should not happen on a luxury safari trip. But even if it did, if it were isolated, that would still be OK.
Meanwhile, I was getting to know X, the driver. X apparently decided that because I was on a trip by myself, it was his job to be my very new best friend and that his job was to entertain me and converse with me. In essence, I spent the day doing the exact opposite of why I’d gone on a trip by myself — so that I wouldn’t have to entertain anyone and put up with someone who annoys me. SO WRONG.
Let’s see, before lunch I had been asked if I believed in God (of course the only answer to this question is “why yes I do, in fact, I believe in [fill the blank] God which is the same as you do” unless you want to get FURTHER into conversation on the subject, which I didn’t. In fact, everytime he brought up god again (which was not infrequently) I asked about the landscape. My driver also used the expression “oh Christ” about every 8 seconds (I don’t think he knows that is somewhat blasphemous in the US).
X also had a passion for ‘lite’ music and Enya, which he played incessently and loudly, in part because it was a mixed CD and he couldn’t well adjust the volume when a song came on blaringly. Eventually when I decided to read so that I didn’t have to put up with his incessent blather, he decided that singing along to his music must be just the kind of entertainment I wanted!
To continue, we were going to stop for lunch at a place a few hours later and the driver said “great, we’ll be there just in time for lunch” (because remember, we had about a 2 hour delay at the mechanics). I say “really, what time do you consider lunch?” he says “3 pm”. I’ve been in Uganda for a month and never knew lunch was at 3pm! In fact, it never was anywhere else…
2+ hours later we pull into a place in Mbarara (M is silent) that I can see somewhat caters to westerners. We sit down together and look over the menu. As I had not eaten anything except cookies at 7am and one candy bar (as would prove fortuitous, I had been suckered into buying numerous candy bars the day before, I am SO glad I had them now as they were used often on this trip), I was pretty hungry. I asked what he was going to order, and he said “oh no, I can’t afford anything here” and he seriously expected me to order and eat right in front of him while he had nothing!
I told him we should just go on to reach the campsite since we had lost time (which also was a boon for the safari company as they had been paying for lunch, I LATER found out). I have another candy bar, and regret having offered one of my now-precious commodity to X, but I had been trying not to be rude. In fact, at one point he offered me gum, which I declined saying “no thanks, I’m fine” and he proceeded to grill me on the expression “I’m fine” which he thought was rude. This is how much fun I was having.
Two short tidbits of adventures on the way. At one point he remembered that he was supposed to buy me water which comes included as part of the safari fee (I only ever got one bottle the entire trip, though he had bought a case). So he pulls into a store in a small town, and goes into the store leaving me in the car, which is fine. But before he goes in, he lowers all the windows I think because he thinks I’d like some air. So of course the moment he is gone, I am hoarded by every crippled beggar, non-crippled beggar, and street vendor who came to the window asking for money. Since X had the key with him, I was completely defenseless. Not that it was really scary, this is Uganda which is very safe, but I was extremely annoyed at this.
Similarly, along the trip there are many, many scenic viewpoints, but we never stop at any of them, because I don’t express interest in stopping, which is fine. But then he wants to get something out of his bag but rather than just say so he pulls over to a random spot on the side of the road and says “you get out and take pictures here while I get a drink out of my bag”. However, it just so happens the spot he pulls over — and there was nothing else like this in the many hundreds of kilometers we passed so it was just this one teeny part of the whole road, HAPPENS to be where there is a road crew repaving the road and the moment he pulls over more than 40 men stop working and just stare at me. Again, I didn’t feel unsafe, but it was about the last place on the world I intended to get out of my car and start taking photos. X seemed completely perplexed why I didn’t get out of the car and I told him I couldn’t find my camera.
Eventually, around 5pm we pull into the campsite to check in. When the company quoted me the price to add Lake Bunyoni on to the trip (which wasn’t cheap), it was with the agreement that I would have a “self-contained” (aka ‘has its own bathroom’) room. WHen we get there the reception guy looks puzzled and says “no, we had no more self-contained rooms when your company booked, you have the group bathroom and shower”. At that point I lost it a bit because I’d been on the road in a crap car that broke down, with possibly one of the most annoying men on earth, for more than 8 hours, and the room I’d been promised and paid for was not in existence, and instead I would be getting a room that retails for about $16. Again, I won’t tell you what I paid!
Now, to X’s credit, he knew I was upset and he called around a number of places and got me a s/c room in another place and offered to drive me there. However, the place was poorly reviewed in my guidebook and I decided to just lump it. The campsite was beautiful and the room was very clean and nice and it had a double bed with a nice view of the lake so what the hell…
I went straight to the restaurant and was eating around 6:30 when X, again my new best friend, decided he needed to sit with me. He said this would be my lunch and I could then get dinner. I asked “what time do you think dinner is?” and he said oh, 9:30 or 10pm, which is when he would eat. I pointed out that the restaurant (the only one in the area) closed at 9. He said, oh, well, they keep it open longer for the drivers (this isn’t true, by the way). I told him that this meal was my dinner and not to worry about it.
The campsite had set up a really nice bonfire overlooking the lake so I spend about an hour there in lovely quiet contemplation when X sees me there, and again feels he must join me. Now, to clarify, it wasn’t as if X was lonely and also looking for company, he had many friends who worked at the campsite and actually left them to join me. He made his attempts to entertain me with tales of other travelers — which I found pretty awful. He was either saying they thought he was the funniest thing since Milton Berle and he kept telling me the stories he said they found funny and I pretended to laugh but really wanted to drill nails into my head to make him go away, or he was telling me about terrible clients who got upset at things like cars breaking down or things not working out as planned (how subtle is that an attempt to make me not act upset so I won’t be like those “bad” clients), or don’t want to take “side trips” with him. After a half hour, I just retreated to my room to get away.
I’ll segue here by saying Lake Bunyoni is indeed very beautiful and I highly recommend anyone traveling to this area to stop by it for a place to relax and hang out. Especially if it is hot (which it wasn’t when I was there, but I can see it being really nice then, with safe swimming and everything). Here are the photos of Lake Bunyoni and Bunyoni Overland Camp (I didn’t label many of the photos, though)
The next morning I was to take a boat ride around the lake and had told the kitchen I’d have breakfast at 8:30, and X asked them to give his breakfast at the same time. I went down at 8 hoping to miss him, but no such luck. I had ordered just toast (again, didn’t know the company was supposed to be paying) and X ordered just tea because “he didn’t eat breakfast” (translation, he didn’t want to pay again). He also grilled me about the concept of “toast” which he said he had never had cooked bread and didn’t understand the appeal of it (I didn’t in the least believe him on this, he knew very well what toast was).
X was also going to join me for the boat ride (would I never get rid of this man??) to keep me company but I said “oh no, that’s really not necessary, why don’t you enjoy a nice morning off with your friends”. Fortunately, that worked. X told me the boat ride was 2- 3 hours. It was 1.5 hours, but I had come to be used to X just outright BSing me. Anyway, the boat tour was lovely and we walked around 2 of the islands in the lake (the lake is in fact a naturally flooded valley system). We got back to the lake around 10:30 and X told me he had ordered lunch for 11am so we could get an early start for Bwindi.
Unfortunately, they didn’t serve lunch until almost noon, which would have been fine except they told me to be there at 11 so I got to spend another hour just sitting around with X rather than walking around by the lake which I would have preferred.
Eventually we eat (again, food was disgusting, my lunch ended up being just boiled irish potatoes which are hard to screw up). While we were eating in the background of the kitchen was being played a VERY LOUD soap opera. It was so loud I couldn’t even hear my fork touch my plate. I ate very quickly so we can leave as soon as possible.
Before we leave though, another X treasure. X is a big fan of animated films like Madagascar, Lion King, and Ice Age, which had been playing on the TV in the background earlier. I very very foolishly mentioned I knew someone who was working on one of the Ice Age movies and X then absolutely pestered me to help him get a job as a voice-over artist in Los Angeles. I am sure you can imagine how well this went over for me…
The showers were utter crap at the campsite (and the food was only marginally better) so I was eager to get to Bwindi where I knew I’d be staying at probably the nicest accomodation the entire 2 month trip, so when we got there I could shower and have something decent to eat.
So, we leave for Bwindi and the roads are horrendous, which was great because he has to concentrate on driving and I don’t have to talk to him. 4+ hours later, we arrive at The Gorrilla Forest Camp lodge which was so nice, it will get its own post separately. In fact, the rest of the trip will be a separate post, but I’ll just finish this one with the X stories that occured on the way to Entebbe on Monday.
In fact, one of the best things about GFC was that they don’t have accomodations for the drivers (which is horribly snobby, and I only feel that way because I didn’t want to be around X), so X was staying somewhere a couple of kilometers away and I never had to worry about him joining me for a meal or stopping by my room to make sure I’m OK.
X had mentioned earlier that his company gets very angry if he stops on the way back to visit his family. But I can see why the tempation would be there. Traveling these vast distances are very hard and since he is from the area, it would be very convenient (for him) to stop by. Of course it’s crap for the client who paid all the money, but that’s not really X’s main interest, is it?
He asks me if I would like to visit his mother and see his house, as all his clients who are REALLY interested in visiting the REAL Uganda and actually want to meet the people and not just be hidden behind a tour van would want to do this. This is pretty much how he presented it. The fact that I’d been living and traveling by myself for a month clearly didn’t impress as having wanted to see the “real Uganda.”
This was one of the things about X. He asks you a question that you really can’t refuse without being rude, but then honestly believes that it was your idea in the first place. *I* really wanted to visit his mother. *I* really didn’t want to eat lunch on the drive out there, etc.
So, we go visit his mother who is extremely nice and very happy to see us. I meet two of his nieces age 7 and 10 whom I shower with stickers and candy bars. I am shown around their house and after maybe 30 minutes we start to go. Though I suspect we drove 45 minutes or more out of our way to go here, overall I am OK with this. It was nice to make his mom so happy.
As we are getting into the car he says “Do you want to watch the video of my sister’s introduction ceremony” (this is a pre-wedding ritual he had been telling me about). I absolutely did NOT want to watch this, but of course agreed as he hadn’t seen it yet and it would have been very rude to his mother to say no. We sit down to watch the video and what does the video begin with? The ritual slaughter and butchering of a cow.
I’m not kidding.
This is really the only part of this horror story that I am well and truly upset about. I do not find anything positive or interesting about watching creatures of any sort die. I’m not a vegetarian, I have no delusions about what goes on the world, but I don’t choose to watch it (bullfights, cockfights, hunting, snuff films, even violent movies — none of it is what I seek out) and now I have the image of a cow getting its throat cut seared into my brain. Even if we had stopped the video then, it would have been too late, the image is there forever. I was completely and utterly suckered into this situation and I have no forgiveness for that.
Fortunately, both his mother and I cover our eyes and X gets the message and fasts-forward through the rest of the cow butchering, which was captured on tape in great detail, apparantly. We then watch another 40 minutes of various bits of video when X says “are you enjoying this” (again, in front of his mother) but at this point I say “how much longer is it” and he gets the message and we leave shortly thereafter.
The drive back is uneventful because as soon as we’re on decent road again, I open my book (The Coffee Trader and Last Train to Istanbul, both of which are very good!) and even go so far as to put on my ipod. It was rude, but at this point, I really didn’t care. We stopped for lunch again at the same place in Mbarara, and this time X ordered food, but frankly, I would have ordered food anyway.
At 7pm, about 10+ hours after we left Bwindi, I was dropped at my new hotel and was finally rid of X, or so I thought. He wanted me to fill in a customer satisfaction form, which I’d deliberately left in the car. I find doing these forms in front of any driver to be beyond pointless. I made some excuse and I could see he was upset. I told him I’d just get the form later from the company via email.
The next day (today) X actually called me to make sure that I don’t tell the tour company about him taking me to see his mother.
I intend to complain to the company about the car and the reservations, but not anything about X. First, he is supporting a large extended family and I have no desire to see him get fired. And frankly, if he were on a tour with a lot of people where he could talk to different people at different times, he might indeed be a fun tour guide to have around. It was really just that our personalities clashed. Had the car and reservations been what they should have, I probably would have written this off anyway, it was just the combination of everything that was over the top.
But I definitely was not treated the way someone shoudl be when they are on a luxury safari. Not with the vehicle, not with the accomodations (except GFC), and not with the driver. Really, ther was very little positive I could say about the experience and I’m very sorry I hadn’t booked everything and traveled on my own.
So, it’s over now, I leave the country tonight and think I will finally be done with X, unless the tour company gives him my home info, which I hope they don’t or I suspect I will find him on my doorstep one day.