The road to Bethlehem runs through jungles and slums and Seussian forests, past packed-mud houses and tethered goats, from Uganda’s capital of Kampala through hilly countryside, 90 miles southwest, to Kyotera. There, at an intersection crowded with vendors tending small cookfires and grills, where the roadsides are choked with motorcycles, a dirt road spits away from the city toward the little valley-bottom village that shares a name with Christ’s birthplace.
During this ninety-mile trek, I fall in love with Uganda. During this ninety-mile trek, Uganda breaks my heart.
If the hotel balcony gave me a first idyllic view of Uganda, the road out of town carries me out of dreamland and through poverty of such staggering magnitude that my throat constricts. Someone from the back of the van asks what I think and I shake my head. I can’t articulate a response. I can’t articulate anything.
Bunker-like buildings line both sides of the road, separated from the pavement not by curbs and sidewalks but by red clay packed hard by a hundred thousand feet. The buildings themselves are made mostly of mud bricks with concrete facades. Some have dirty whitewash and peeling campaign posters. Each has a door or curtain that opens into a single room brimming with clothing or videos or hardware or any of a thousand other things needed for daily living. Rusted metal roofs top most of them. Garbage, like thickly scattered confetti, has been trampled into the ground everywhere in lieu of grass or flowers. I cannot even begin to believe the rubbish.
In front of the buildings, closer to curbside—were there any curb—vendors have stacked piles of pineapples, cages filled with chickens, stacks of building supplies, and odd collections of wrought-iron doors and fences. A few vendors have also placed martially perfect rows of sofas and cushy chairs outside their stores; the furniture seems impervious to the ever-present red clay dust and the ashfall from the occasional smoldering pile of trash.
Gas stations with names like PetroFeast and Bonjour squat on corners. I watch the price creep from 3500 shillings per metric liter up to 3750 to 3800, depending on where we are in the city. That’s about seven U.S. dollars per gallon. When we finally gas up, we also need water and the station has none, so we stop at a store a few miles down the road. Bottles cost about 700 shillings each—about thirty cents.
Motorbikes swarm along the roadside thick as ants marching to a spilled popsicle, many of them with extra gas cans strapped on. Most motorcycles have at least two people, but I see as many as four. “The record I’ve seen is six,” a friend says from the back of the van.
Bikes zip along, too, but not so many in the city as I’ll see later down the road. They, too, are laden with anything I might imagine: eight-foot sections of corrugated metal, bales of palm fronds, bunches of bananas as big as barrels. Everyone—cars, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians—travels in the same direction, unlike in the U.S., where bikes and pedestrians go against the flow of traffic. Traffic moves on the left side of the road, too—the “wrong” side to me, as an American, and every time it looks like we’re about to run into someone, I subconsciously want to move further to the right, which would surely bring me to calamity were I the one driving.
Fortunately, the man behind the wheel is Herman Kitamirike, a thirty-year-old Ugandan who somehow serves as an insurance company’s poster child for safe driving while still exercising a crash-test-dummy fearlessness. There’s imperturbable Zen to Herman.
He begins to extract us from the city’s gravitational pull, but it’s been like pulling ourselves out of a tarpit. Kampala clings to us, stretches with us as we take the road southwest toward Masaka. The roadside clutter continues to press in, interrupted first here and there and then at greater intervals by stretches of green. The poverty never lets go.
At times, the road becomes little more than a ribbon of unmarked pavement that barely allows two cars to pass each other. Stretches of road seem only one step away from again devolving into dirt, with crumbling edges that look like earthquake victims and potholes that would challenge any moon rover. The van seems to have no shocks, for even as delicate as Herman is with his driving, the potholes rattle our bones like sheetmetal when we hit them.
A few miles later, the road opens up wide and smooth and fast, painted with lines down the middle and along the berms and with shiny aluminum guardrails along both sides. The national government is responsible for this road, Herman explains, but local governments are responsible for executing maintenance projects. At times, we pass through idle construction zones where the traffic kicks up the ubiquitous red dust. At one point, we pass through a construction zone where they’ve been laying crushed limestone, and white dust gets kicked up instead. The trees and bushes lining the roadsides look like they’ve suffered a heavy frost.
As we get further from the city, the nature of the roadside shops changes. I still see the same sorts of stores I saw in the capital, but I also see more individual wares: trees with tube-shaped luffa sponges hanging on the branches…baskets woven like urns and like discs…drums. People have stacked tomatoes and sweet potatoes in small pyramids in front of their homes. I see awkward piles of jack fruit, each the size of a warty watermelon but lumpy in its unevenness. Jack fruit are sticky enough that some people have to use kerosene to clean up afterwards.
People have also tied goats to stakes along the road. Cows, too, with their massive horns poking skyward like Viking helmets. The livestock, I assume, belong to families and are not for sale.
Any time we come to a settlement or shopping area of any size, I see cellphone receivers attached to tall poles that rise like giraffes from the rooftops. Whole buildings have been painted as advertisements, not just in the old Mail Pouch Tobacco tradition but in the watermelon red of Airtel and the turqoise of Uganda Telecom: “Where it’s all about U.” We pass by whole clusters of such buildings, like company towns of old, although many such buildings stand alone.
I begin to realize the movement of traffic has its own feel to it, quite different than traffic in the U.S. While everyone moves forward, there’s also a smooth side-to-side flow, too, as drivers weave around potholes and slip past each other. The road is hilly and curvy, but no one’s going too fast because of random speed bumps that rise out of the pavement to gut any fast-moving cars, so passing seems relatively easy. Motor vehicles have the right of way, then motorbikes, then bicycles, then pedestrians—who all seem to just barely slide around each other as part of the side-to-side flow. During the sliding, Herman never blinks.
As the road passes through low-lying areas where the land is wet, we pass through vast stands of papyrus. With their wispy dandelion heads, they look like truffula trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. We also cross the meandering Katonga River, the country’s second-longest, as it makes it way toward Lake Victoria to the east.
We also pass the Equator—my first time in the Southern Hemisphere. For a brief second, I imagine an upside-down world, where we’re all suddenly in danger of falling off the earth into space.
Traffic police in crisp white uniforms and dark berets sit along the roadside for intermittent traffic checks. I don’t ever see them pull anyone over. Sometimes they’re accompanied by soldiers in white-and-blue camouflage. I frequently see rifle-toting soldiers, singly and in pairs, walking through towns. It unnerves me even though Uganda’s legacy of violence dates back to Idi Amin’s reign in the seventies; things have generally been quiet since then. Truth be told, this is one of the safest places in Africa to visit, and National Geographic just named the country one of the Top 20 tourist destinations for 2013.
We reach our own destination, the Serona Hotel in Kyotera, after about three and a half hours. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever made that trip!” says Deb, the woman who’d organized the trip. The road, it seems, is much improved since even her previous trip last spring.
All I want to do is curl up in my hotel room and decompress. The road has shown me much—perhaps too much. Squalor and beauty, side by side, have inundated me an fascinated me, and I feel a profound need to take a time out.
But we still have four miles or so to go—down the dirt road that branches out from the clogged intersection and strikes out into the jungle, the dirt road that leads to Bethlehem.