The Surreal Experience of Hitchhiking in Uganda
It was a fine sunny afternoon during the second dry season of the year, and I was standing at the roadside in Jinja, Uganda. It was hard. Actually very hard. As ever since my six-week hitchhiking trip in Iran in 2014, I got spoiled. Whenever I had to wait more than 20 minutes for a ride I would first pray to the Goddess of Hitchhiking, then accuse the God of Travelling, and finally I would curse the universe for bringing me such bad luck. I was thinking about the lovely experiences I had had during my two-year journey on the road just to keep the morale up. As we all know, my dear friends, a positive attitude attracts positive people.
There were trucks! I started waving and smiling at them, as if seeing an old friend from afar. Eventually a huge one pulled over beside the road. A soldier, sitting on the passenger seat with a machine gun hanging around his neck opened the shabby door.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“Kenya!” I said, “I am going through Busia to cross the border! You?”
“Ok, listen, we are going to Busia, and the price is 10,000 shillings.”
“Eh…I do not have money, I am a poor man!” I said, still smiling.
The driver then leaned over to show me some banknotes.
“What?” he said, “shillings, you know? Shillings!”
I had been using shillings since I came to Uganda for a volunteer program about six weeks prior. During this time I had been robbed once, swindled countless times, extorted by policemen several times, and often people had begged me for money. So yes, I knew perfectly well about shillings.
Although I am not white people in Uganda still called me “Mzungu”, which means “white person”, and frequently along with other foreigners we were seen as walking ATMs. This was a poor country and I did not blame the people for this at all. I also had great local friends and lovely experiences during my stay. The majority of the people in this world are good people; kind, helpful and nice to foreigners. Often they just lack information and education. This truck driver was actually making business of taking passengers along with him, which might not be a rare phenomenon in Africa. I tried to explain to them that I was a m
oneyless Chinese guy roaming around the world in a nomadic way and they actually didn’t believe that a foreign traveller in Uganda could be moneyless. They laughed it off and drove away.
I recalled the moment when I said goodbye to my friends in Entebbe and their worried faces when I told them that I was going to restart my hitchhiking life to Kenya, and then all the way north to sleep upon the pyramids.
“Oh, Wei, always remember, this is Uganda! This is Africa! The way you travelled in Asia and Europe might not work out here.” That was what Mugabi said, his face sincere.
I also recalled the shocked face of Shivan. “Wei!” he warned me, “they will kill you and, and…”
Of course I also recalled my own shining, positive spirit. “Don’t worry!” I told them, “I have hitchhiked more than 20,000 kilometres and even passed Taliban-controlled areas, almost dying twice in the process. It’s going to work out, even in Africa! Everywhere, even in Africa, there are friendly and curious people!”
The road I stood aside was on a high plateau, and below it I saw myriad soft green lines drawn as if by a divine hand: the tea fields. Their yellow-green colour began to glow like golden silk woven into alluring curves by the setting equatorial sun. I took a moment to unleash my eyes and my imagination upon this view. Knowing that I probably would end up sleeping under one of those curves that night, I relaxed and smiled. Not bad. I go where the road takes me, and if the road refuses to take me along I will remain where it leaves me and relish every minute of it. Happiness is in the attitude of travelling, neither in purpose nor destination.
I continued waving my hand, ignoring all the strange and curious looks passers-by gave me. Suddenly a white car stopped. Forty minutes waiting finally got me something! I ran up to it with my green backpack. The door opened and an African dude smiled politely to me without saying anything. “Hahaha!” came laughter from the passenger seat before I even started to speak. “You know what?”, he said, “you look so much like a classmate of mine! Get in!”
On the passenger seat was this Chinese guy, who was the translator of a Chinese state-run company which was doing a road project in the neighbourhood, and apparently I happened to resemble one of his old schoolmates. The car belonged to his company and he was on his way back to his camp.
There is a huge amount of Chinese people working in Africa, mostly doing private business or employed by gigantic state-run Chinese companies. As I often told my friends, there are three types of people in Africa: Africans, Chinese and other foreigners. Along the roads of many an African country you see signs of Chinese projects everywhere. If a road were under construction, you could expect a Chinese workers’ camp 20 kilometres away.
I had actually always avoided mingling with them when I was abroad. Most Chinese people are totally business-minded, and never give a damn about peace, love or hitchhiking around the world. It was insane for them, and for those over thirty-five it was absolutely irresponsible and would be harshly reproached by everybody whenever possible. Another reason why I did not intentionally seek their help was that I travelled to see the culture of others, not my own. But this one seemed to be an exception.
“So now I see the benefit of having a common face!” I joked.
He laughed. “Where are you heading for?” he asked me. I told him what I did and was doing, hiding the craziest parts.
“Fine,” he said, “I shall help you! This is my name card. Sorry, you see, tonight we have a meeting in our camp, otherwise you could come with me, stay in our camp and have dinner with us.”
“No worries!” I said. “I am already very grateful!” I took the namecard from him and then took out a piece of paper and started writing.
“I don’t have a namecard as I am unemployed,” I said, “but this is my Wechat ID, feel free to add me!”
He was young, about twenty-eight I thought, and rather open-minded. As we talked and laughed, I started to reveal more details about the scarier parts of my journey. He envied me; that kind of freedom was something too luxurious for him.
“Most Chinese people,” he said, “simply get married before twenty-seven, and then have kids and then are forever bound by their family life. I have ever imagined to have a journey through the world, but you know, my parents would kill me if the road does not.” We laughed.
He went on. “It’s not easy to do business with the locals here. They are much too disorganized. Today I went on this trip because we lacked some parts for our machines. Last time I went to the shop they told me the parts would be ready next week, so the next week I went again, only to hear they would be ready another week later! Today I went again, and guess what – they were still not there yet! There was a local priest living just beside our camp. He told us about some dangerous situations here in Uganda. Once he was almost robbed on the way while driving at night. He was so scared that he simply pushed forward and ran away, not knowing if his car had hit those robbers or not. We have a gas tank in our camp for the machines, and every night the locals came to steal it. My boss decided to hide me in the bush just beside the tank to catch them.”
“Then, did you get them?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “my skin colour is too visible at night.”
Wei Xiao is a trained biologist whose nomadic heart has led him to a world trip of hitchhiking and a variety of adventures. Check out his blog at https://alwaysawei.wordpress.com/