Gertie Visits a Resort

An African resort, I mused. Wonder what THAT will be like?

So I looked it up on Travelocity. Not first class, the review said. Make sure you reserve your hot water shower time in the morning: water is heated only once a day. Don’t expect fast service, cautioned another reviewer: getting your meals will take some time. And, beware of the plentiful cats everywhere, said a third critic. They have fleas.

So I packed my overnight bag as well as I could, considering the circumstances–I didn’t have jeans or a t-shirt, and I wasn’t sure that the proper Ugandan business person would welcome such casual clothes, either.

Ready as I’ll ever be, I thought, as i hoisted my bag into Vincent’s car, along with my materials for leading the strategic planning retreat for the Ugandan real estate association. Little did I realize, but the only thing I forgot to bring was my flashlight….

The trip to the resort was an adventure in itself. Driving in Kampala traffic is a little like playing in those rubber-bumper dodge ’em cars at the county fair–only at much faster speeds and without the rubber bumpers. Best to keep the car windows rolled up, too: the slow-moving traffic encourages thieves to reach in your vehicle and grab your valuables–a lesson a cab driver gave me as I was trying to take photos on my way to the hotel from the airport. “Roll up your window, Mme,” he said. “Those guys walking by the cars, they is bad ones.”

Vincent, the CEO of the Uganda real estate association, has a very nice car–fortunately with air conditioning (a rarity, and not often used anyway due to the very high gas prices). That and his cautious driving meant that the 50 miles to the Kingfisher Resort was completed in two hours and in relative comfort. However, any vehicle transportation in this country is a hair-raising adventure–roads are poorly surfaced (if at all) and without such conveniences as signs, lines, and shoulders. Traffic is heavy, and usually consists of mini-buses, smoke-belching ancient trucks, oil tankers, motor bikes, bicycles with huge loads of green bananas tied to the back of the seat, and assorted livestock–goats, chickens, and cattle.

On our trip, the two-lane ‘highway’ was lined with one-room tiny shacks selling various goods: fruit, hardware, paint, electronics and so on. The little buildings were usually constructed of spindly poles and sheets of tin for a roof, and perhaps a curtain for the doorway to keep out the ever-present red road dust. It’s also quite common for commercial advertisers such as Coca-Cola to come through a community and paint the little buildings with the company color and logo: it’s less expensive than billboard advertising and it helps maintain the buildings, Vincent says.

He also explains how in Kampala, the city of Seven Hills, the slums are in the low lying areas of the city, the swamp land. “All the rich people build on top of the hills,” he says, “and the basins are filled with squatters’ shacks and tents. ” There’s no good drainage in the low areas, of course, and plenty of sewage ditches and standing water, breeding grounds for unimaginable health threats. Vincent thinks that the life expectancy of 51 years for Ugandan men might be a little high: the living conditions, malnourishment, and AIDS are the biggest threats, he says.

As we travel further from Kampala, the jungle encroaches, long stretches of very lush, green forest. The only signs of civilization I can see are the cows and goats tethered along the highway, keeping down the roadside growth, and the many people walking along the roadside, baskets of fruit or building materials on their heads. Every now and then there is a cluster of merchants dressed in bright blue merchant union uniforms, selling a variety of items–food, cigarettes, produce. When we come to one of these areas, cars and buses quickly pull off the road so drivers can grab something to eat or replenish water supplies or repair vehicles. Think of it as the Ugandan version of a gas station and speedy mart operation in the US….

The Kingfisher Resort is located on the Nile River, close to the place where the Nile begins as the water flows from Lake Victoria. It’s down an unpaved red dirt road, a two-track, really, that winds past farms and a couple of elaborate mansions. The Kingfisher is a collection of circular huts, each of which contains 4 pie-shaped guest rooms with bathroom. The roof is straw-thatching, and the construction is cement. In the center of the complex is a pool, an outdoor eating area, and a fairly large hut containing the conference room facility. It’s a beautifully landscaped arrangement, and quaint and charming.

An yes, there are cats everywhere: one snuck into the conference room and jumped up on the serving table to help herself to the tomato sandwiches left there for our tea break. There were also thousands of bats in the trees outside our meeting room area: their constant chirping and humming was sometimes louder than our voices inside as we worked through the strategic planning process for the Uganda Real Estate association. During our night session, though, the bats were quieter and it was the frogs which accompanied our deliberation–creatures with harsh deep voices that sounded like incessantly quacking ducks. Those were the sounds that lulled me to sleep that night as I lay on my board-and-thin-mattress bed, enjoying the cool night air which had come to Africa at last.

My room was spartan–a built-in board and mattress bed, an extra straw mat for sleeping on the concrete floor, a sink and toilet, a plastic chair and table, a single wall sconce for light (when the electricity worked), and a single screened window. It was simple, but clean and charming: people didn’t stay in their rooms except to sleep anyway. Some visitors, like us, were in meetings and the few other guests spent time sightseeing or hanging out by the bar and pool.

“Mostly the guests are people who live in Kampala and want to get away for a few days,” Vincent explained to me. And indeed, after the frantic hustle and frenzy of big city traffic and living, I could understand the attraction.

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