In a turn-of-events whereby Plan B worked out better than Plan A, Ebola concerns prompted my overland itinerary to shift. Instead of exploring Kampala’s museums on my sole tourist day in Uganda, I visited Jinja and Lake Victoria, whose claim to fame is being the source of the Nile River.
With all its driving, an overland tour provides ample opportunities for meditation. I spent my quiet time thinking about my first full-length manuscript - a memoir, in part, about my family’s refugee story. There was something symbolic about spending my last day of vacation floating on the source of the Nile – that same Nile River my father and I cruised down on our first and only father-daughter trip to his native Egypt – before returning home to begin my manuscript project in earnest.
I almost choked on my bottled water when the tour guide quoted USD90 for a private boat. I’ve overpaid for tourist attractions before (most notably, the Giza Pyramids), but this figure took me by surprise. I reasoned with myself that I would not be coming back to Uganda, let alone Lake Victoria, anytime soon, and to make the most of the day not-planned-but-now-planned.
My knowledgeable tour guide pointed out pelican-like birds, flipping otters, and monkeys camouflaged into the trees from our view atop the water. I was also pleased to learn from him that the Uganda government curbed development along Lake Victoria for ecological purposes. That said, there were a few shanties and fishing shacks on the shore once our boat strayed further away from the tourist dock.
To and from Lake Victoria, I took my first boda-boda (motorbike) in my 35 years of life. I wore no helmet and surprisingly felt no fear, even when my driver made sharp turns to avoid collisions on the line-less roads. I enjoyed a mid-day lunch at The Deli on Jinja’s Main Street as a second destination. Though I had a book to keep me company, eavesdropping on nearby chatter made for better entertainment. To my right, a European couple were in the middle of - not quite an argument, but a deliberation, let’s call it - about their romantic future. To my left, an Egyptian family, perhaps from Chicago based on their sports gear, were pouring over the menu in Arabic and deciding what they wanted for lunch besides French fries.
Though I was satisfied after my meal, I decided to buy one of Uganda’s famous crops, banana. Luckily, there was a vendor with a makeshift stand near my boda-boda driver (who was sneaking in a nap while I was at lunch). The vendor was no more than six years old. He balked at my first offer to buy one banana, a mean growl on his face, insisting that I buy a bunch. When I counter-offered to buy two bananas for the same price as a bunch, this young man became a little boy again, showing me his beautiful square teeth through a smile. I have thought of him often since returning home.
Tired from early mornings and late nights in Kenya, I returned to my accommodations - Jinja Backpackers - by mid-afternoon. I stood under a stream of hot water in the luxurious, bamboo-accented shower for a good 20 minutes before climbing into the queen-size bed and calling it an early day.
As I told its owner, the hotel name struck me as a misnomer. Before I arrived, I pictured “Jinja Backpackers” as a hostel with simple grounds. Instead, the place was elegant: an open-air lobby with modest but beautiful decor, spacious rooms (and mine with an en-suite bathroom), and in the yard, private structures resembling something between a bungalow and a yurt allowing for guests to prep simple meals, shower, and sleep under the stars. I would highly recommend this property to anyone making their way to or through Jinja.
I spent closer to five hours the next day, that of my connecting flight to Dubai en route home, in dusty traffic driving from Jinja to Entebbe International Airport. The ride gave me one last chance to take in East Africa by vehicle before the pitstop in my old stomping grounds of UAE.