Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

Kampala part 1: London to Africa, by way of a gallery

I started my trip a week ago, with a stopover in London -- my first in summer. After half a dozen visits there bundled in wool or down jackets, I couldn't get over the shirt-sleeves weather. I'd hoped to have more time there, but after a delay out of San Francisco, and more than an hour in the immigration line, I didn't meet my friend at the Royal Academy until 5:15.

Fortunately we had just enough time to see the Yinka Shonibare contributions I'd wanted to see. (I last saw his work at a Dutch show in November.) At the summer exhibition, he'd both contributed a few of his own pieces and curated one of the rooms. To my great delight, his choices included two contemporary African artists whose work I knew.

After a quick bite, I returned to the airport for my flight to Doha. Despite warnings of possible disruptions there due to recent changes in diplomatic relations, the airport was quiet and modern. I only saw the city from the tarmac, its highrises towering in the heat like a glass and metallic mirage.

Several hours later, I disembarked in Kampala. The hotel hosting the meeting I'd come for was nearly an hour from the airport, so my taxi driver drove part of the way on a still-under-construction road that will eventually be a small freeway. At various points along the way, we had to stop so they could move orange barriers to let us pass.

Once we reached the hotel, set on the shores of Lake Victoria, check-in soon posed a quandary. If I paid by card, they'd charge a 5 percent surcharge -- about $25. If I went to a bank to withdraw cash, however, even with bank fees and the taxi fare, I might spend a little less. Since I also needed to buy a lot of water, I chose the latter option.

We took a paved road to the ATM, roughly one lane in each direction. The pavement ended abruptly on each side, in irregular curves seemingly left by erosion. Along the roadside, people walked along the red-dirt track or sold wares. Some women carried trays of fruit - mostly bananas - on their heads. We passed multiple open-air shops selling mostly wood furniture, from four-poster bed frames to bookshelves. When I expressed surprise, the driver said that part of Kampala is something like a furniture district, with most of the sellers congregating in one part of the city.

My bank errand done, my driver took me to a small, dimly lit shop something like a small convenience store, with a basic selection of groceries. With my driver's help, I settled on a roughly 20 liter jug. At 13,000 Uganda shillings (less than $4), it was bargain-priced compared to buying that much in 500 ml bottles from the hotel.

From there I'd planned to return to the hotel, but based on my interest in the shop's wares, the driver suggested he take me into downtown Kampala to a craft market. It would cost a little more money, but take advantage of the Sunday afternoon's good traffic and my limited window of free time. I agreed.

Kampala sprawls over seemingly dozens of gentle hills, several of which our route crossed. As we drove, I realized I'd expected to see mostly single-story buildings, but we passed several of three or four stories. Near the city center, my driver pointed out a large mosque, then a Hindu temple. Not far from the latter, we finally alighted on a quiet street.

The mostly open-air craft market packed more than a dozen stalls (nearly all staffed by women) into a relatively small space. Their wares included paintings,  jewelry, toys and clothes made from the region's distinctive wax-print fabric, but I soon realized I had no appetite to buy. After more than 30 hours in transit, I was grateful for a chance to see some of Kampala, but had no energy to bargain or buy. With a quick stop for beans at the coffee shop across the street, we turned back.

Perhaps feeling he owed me a bit more from the drive, my driver took me past a bustling produce market, where people thronged amid the wares laid out on blankets. I took no pictures here, despite the colorful setting. Though I know what my usual photographic habits entail while traveling, I'd read too many African novelists who write about the ways foreigners like to take pictures of them. In that space, I feared the act of me, as an obvious outsider, wielding a camera, might seem disrespectful. Indeed, one brief attempt to capture the scene at a traffic light drew a frown from one man, though I only noticed his reaction after I noticed him seemingly photographing me in response.