I’m currently in Uganda on assignment for the World Bank. I’m conducting research, along with another GWU graduate student, Alexandra, on programming for former child soldiers and also looking at the migration of ex-combatants in Uganda. Read my first dispatch from Uganda for more information on the assignment.
26 days after learning that I would be spending the summer in Uganda, our Ethiopian Airlines 767 touched down in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) for a layover en route to Entebbe (Uganda).
It was actually a pleasant flight, far less time than the flight duration from Portland, OR to Maputo, Mozambique, or an overnight bus from Lima to Arequipa, Peru. Our flight left at noon and got into Uganda around noon the next day. Ethiopian Airlines was first class all the way (not our seats, mind you, just the experience). We got great meals, the entertainment systems worked as they should, free booze, who can ask for more? Looking back, I’d choose that 12 hour flight any day over some of the domestic flights I’ve been on in the U.S.
The only beef I have with Ethiopian (if I had to have one) is the insistence of the flight attendants to wake everyone up at 6am (Addis time). Exactly at 6am (3 hours before arrival, nonetheless!) flight attendants not only turned on all of the cabin lights, but came around to wake each individual from their peaceful slumbers to give them a hot towel. Later in Kampala, we met someone who had the same complaint, so it wasn’t just us. Perhaps it’s an Ethiopian thing…the sacred morning hot towel…who knows.
After landing in Addis, something truly bizarre happened. We were all ushered off the aircraft into shuttle buses that eventually carried us about a hundred yards over to one particular terminal. There, we had to wait over 20 minutes to catch the shuttle to ‘A’ terminal, which proceeded to ferry us back towards — and then past — our original aircraft, only to deposit us at a building about 50 feet away from where we caught the original shuttle (the entrance to ‘Terminal A’ is just off the margin of the photo below, which was taken while disembarking our plane from DC). In Entebbe, we had to walk a football-field’s length of open tarmac before reaching the terminal, but in Addis, apparently you need two shuttles and 30 minutes to take you a couple dozen yards.
It was a partly cloudy, nearly perfect day, with light winds and decent visibility, so I’m not sure what caused us to come into Entebbe so fast and so hard, but that’s exactly what we did. I don’t believe I’ve ever had such a hard landing. We were looking out admiring Lake Victoria, then I started thinking, ‘man, we’re coming in fast’…then, ‘wow this is really fast,’ then, ‘wow, we’re really low,’ then…CATHUGGGGGGGG! Welcome to Entebbe!!!
At Entebbe, they don’t need no stinkin’ shuttle. You get out and walk.
I think it’s worth mentioning that this is the site of the famous (and successful) “Operation Entebbe” conducted by Israeli commandos in 1976 to rescue Israeli hostages from an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris that had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and diverted to Uganda. The unfolding of events prior to the commando operation is depicted near the end of the recent movie “The Last King of Scotland” and was apparently the model for the U.S. operation to free the embassy hostages in Iran in 1980, though the American mission was not at all successful.
Customs and immigration were a breeze, claiming our luggage was a snap, and our driver, Kenneth, was even on time. Just one snag- no money. We expected there to be a money change kiosk or ATM at the ‘international’ airport, but this being Sunday, it became a little more complicated.
They indeed had a number of ATMs, but as we would soon learn in Uganda, no one takes MasterCard (which is what Alexandra and my primary debit cards were). Note to those planning to travel to Uganda in the near future: you are going to want to bring at least one Visa debit card. Now here’s the complicating factor, most of us who travel overseas and bring our credit union or USAA debit cards to avoid the bank transaction fees are at a disadvantage in Uganda because most of those banks tend to partner with MasterCard for whatever reason. There is indeed one bank in the entire country of Uganda that takes MasterCard — Stanbic Bank. Luckily, there is at least one Stanbic in every one-horse town, just not one working on Sunday’s at the country’s international airport.
Luckily, I brought a visa debit card for emergencies as well. So I was able to buy a SIM card for my phone and pay our driver, which is always nice.
Kenneth, the gentlemen who had the [likely] incredible misfortune to have to drive the two of us wazungus (white people) around had been recommended by our boss, Aki, as someone who we should contact when arriving in country. He of course became our go to guy and the dude was extremely dependable and early (to a fault). He would drive us back and forth to our hotel and the World Bank office, to the Amnesty Commission office, to various hotels (when we were doing some recon working for later in our trip) and really anywhere else we needed to go. He was also an all around good guy.
One of the World Bank staff in Kampala had arranged our accommodation at Fairway Hotel for the duration of our stay in Kampala, though no one else at the Bank office (or Aki) had seemed to have stayed there. We were pleasantly surprised, especially for the rate for Kampala ($67/night UN rate) and it ended up becoming our home away from home (by the end of our assignment, we had stayed there for a total of three weeks). And in case you’re wondering, yes, it is across the street from the Kampala golf course.
But there was a darker side to Fairway– the first night in-country, Alexandra and I experienced a tale of two rooms: she, by all accounts, received a very pleasant night’s sleep. I, on the other hand, had a number of things conspiring to keep me from alleviating my jet lagged state of existence: 1) it was super hot and humid and the A/C didn’t work, 2) sliding glass door didn’t shut all the way, filling my room with mosquitoes (somehow they managed to penetrate the defenses of my mozie net as well), 3) I had a very loud chain-smoking neighbor who was up all night yelling at [what I presume was] his phone and smoking, the smoke from which continuously wafted under the door dividing our two rooms, and 4) there was a party/loud thumping discoteque going on outside that Alexandra apparently had no problem sleeping through. It was an awful night.
But justice did prevail. After notifying management of my horrendous night and desire to change rooms, they not only changed me, but upgraded me to a fine business-class suite with a sitting area, tiled floors, a nice quiet veranda, and hot water on demand (with a free-standing shower head as opposed to the hand-held kind). I had that room for the next 9 days and it was difficult to relinquish in the end…I almost didn’t give the key back.
Our first meal in Kampala was actually at the Speke Hotel, Aki’s old haunt. He had recommended the Indian restaurant there and it was quite good. This of course happened before my awful night’s sleep, but I thought I’d end this post on a positive note. Bottom line was that we had made it to Kampala and our hotel, safe and sound, and were ready to start the assignment. The only question was: was Uganda ready for us?