I wake up to the indistinct sounds of people chattering and a continent’s worth of bird chirping, or so it seems. I hear someone’s rooster crow every once in a while off in the distance, but it’s 9 a.m., so he’s probably been at work for a while now and I’ve been ignoring him all this time. After flying halfway around the world on about three and a half hours of airplane sleep, once I got to my hotel room in Kampala, I slept the sleep of the dead.
The trip to Uganda has gone smoothly. I ushered in the New Year somewhere over 30-degree longitude, although the captain made no announcement when the time came, so I don’t know exactly when in the flight that happened. No ball from Times Square. No noisemakers or pots and pans. No champagne. Just a distracting episode of Smash on the in-flight movie screen.
During the layover in Brussels, I drank a beer just so I can say I’ve had a Belgian beer in Belgium. It was 8 a.m. local time on New Years Day, and except for a long line of people waiting to board a plane to JFK, the airport was cavernously empty.
We fell in with a Uganda dissident, Yoga, who was returning to his home country for the first time in years. He’s been living in exile in the United States with his wife, who’s since become an American citizen. Yoga has the kindly demeanor you hope Morgan Freeman has: that wise, friendly uncle who exudes calm.
During the years of Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970s, Yoga went into exile to escape political prosecution. Following the dictator’s fall, he returned, but by the mid-80s went into exile again because of a falling out with the new government of Yoweri Musevini. Yoga, it seems, had once been part of that circle of politicians, although he doesn’t get into specifics and I don’t ask. I’m content to let him talk.
Yoga’s return to Uganda will last for four months, and it comes just as the president and the parliament are about to square off over a corruption case involving the possible murder of an opposition member of parliament and subsequent cover-up by the executive branch—like Watergate but with a dead body. I don’t know much about current Ugandan politics, so it’s something I’ll have to look into later. When I have the chance to ask one of our hosts about the controversy, he smiles it off. “It’s not a big deal,” he tells me.
Yoga promises me to send me some links to several newspaper editorials he’s written for The Monitor, the largest of Ugandans non-government-run newspapers. During the months ahead, he expects to make the rounds of Uganda’s talk radio programs. I hope he keeps in touch.
The flight from Brussels to Uganda takes us over the cloud-shrouded Alps, which I don’t get to see. Hopefully on the way back. The weather clears somewhere over the Mediterranean, but by then, I’ve tried to steal my few hours of sleep, which keeps getting interrupted by flight attendants offering drinks and, later, ice cream bars.
By the time I wake up for good, we’re over the Sahara: sand as far as I can see, which is pretty far, considering our altitude. “Sea of sand” seems so cliché, but as someone who’s spent a lot of time in my life staring at the ocean, there’s no more fitting metaphor. The wind-shaped contours look, from this height, like storm-tossed waves of orange, amber, umber, and burnt sienna—even bleached tangerine. I wonder, for a second, what it would be like to crash land down there—how small and lost we would be. It makes me feel lonely.
The Nile River snakes into view, wide and verdant in the midst of the barren landscape. The desert has magnitude but the river has a power of its own, majesty against majesty. When the sun finally sets over the desert, the horizon turns into a blood-read seam between sand and sky. The curve of the earth throws the desert into shadow. The sun, incandescent, becomes the Sahara’s last shade of orange as it sinks away.
After a brief stop in Kigali, Rwanda, we hopscotch up to Entebbe, Uganda, and from there drive to Kampala. The single stretch of road has no streetlights but is crowded with cars and motorbikes and pedestrians, all navigating the dark by headlights or nothing. I get glimpses of the streetside shops crowding in: concrete bunkers, corrugated metal, heaps of stuff I can’t identify, an occasional cookfire, shanties, packed earth. People everywhere.
When I awake, I am eager to see Uganda in the light. The dark impressions clutter the edges of my consciousness—not to mention decades of anticipation.
I tease myself, throwing open only the drapes but leaving closed the white gauzy privacy curtains. I see lots of green out the window. I let that tantalize me while I get cleaned up and ready. Then I come back, ready finally to see the full view. I push past the curtains and out onto the small balcony.
The vacant lot next to the hotel bursts with broad-leafed banana trees, although directly in front of me I see a three-and-a-half-story avocado tree stretching up to reach my balcony . There are plenty of smaller trees and bushes I of course don’t recognize, but the lot looks like a miniature jungle. On the far side, atop a the roof of another hotel, a stork stands vigil—three feet tall, perhaps, black-feathered except for a bald neck and head. It manages to look sinister and gawky at the same time.
To my left, a manmade lake teems with hundreds of other birds, most of which congregate on an island near the shore. There are Nile perch and mudfish in the lake, I’m later told. A few people walk along a wide dirt footpath along the lake’s near edge. On the far side, I see squat buildings that stretch off toward the hillsides beyond, where they all jockey for space among the trees. Everything’s off-white or the color of terra cotta or jungle green.
I stay on the balcony for a long time, letting Uganda show itself to me as it will. There will be more to see, and it will look vastly different than this little idyllic glimpse, but for the moment, after a day of travel and a lifetime of waiting, this is everything I need.