The Wrong Ferry to the Wrong Island

Brian Ferry once gave some good advice.  He said:

“Don’t pay the ferryman;
Don’t even fix a price.
Don’t pay the ferryman;
Until he gets you to the other side!”

I think it would have been helpful if he’d added another verse …. something along the lines of  …

“Don’t pay the ferry man,
Don’t even fix a price.
Don’t pay the ferryman;
Until you know what’s on the other side!”

It was our second day in Entebbe, Uganda.  Machellie and I were in high spirits, feeling quite invincible and very chuffed with ourselves.  Everything had been working out so well for us.  Firstly, we’d had a great flight over on SAA.  (We’d enjoyed a delicious meal with lots of wine, and had been kept constantly entertained by the loveliest air steward, who made it his business to surreptitiously pass us tiny bottles of vodka, gin and Amarula every time he passed by our seats.  We drank as much as we possibly could (our aim was to drink about R6000 worth as that is what we’d paid for our air tickets), and then stuffed the remaining little bottles into our handbags for later use.). We were now safely installed in our Entebbe Backpackers Room, lucky number 7.  We’d had a lovely time the previous day exploring Entebbe; walking around and exploring the town, shopping at the market and various little stores, and spending time relaxing at the Botanical gardens.  We were really starting to chill out and get into full holiday mode.  We had taken off our watches and begun to adopt the whole “don’t be in a hurry” Ugandan mindset.

Machellie and I are both super-organized people.  In fact, if one were feeling unkind, one could even describe us as “anal”.  We don’t like unforeseen circumstances or being caught unprepared.  We plan ahead.

In the months leading up to our departure, we had been in regular contact with a Dutch lady called Petra.  She is the admin person at Banda Island, where we had booked a cabin on the beach for three days.  In one of our mails, we had explained that we would be staying in Entebbe when we first arrived, and asked her how we would get to Banda Island from Entebbe.  “Just take the ferry”, she had written back, airily.  Not content with her brief reply and wanting more details in our quest to be super-organised, we had done intensive research on the internet, where we learned that the ferry made one direct trip to Banda Island a week, departing at 12 noon on a Tuesday.  Which just happened to be the day that we would be traveling to Banda.   Everything, as usual, was just falling so nicely into place for us.  We were so incredibly lucky and our entire trip was charmed.

So, back to the previous day, our first day in Uganda.  We had told the nice man who worked at reception of Entebbe Backpackers, Benjamin, that we were off to Banda Island the next day.  We had asked him whether he could organise us a cab to the place where we would catch the ferry.  He told us that he would do so with pleasure, but corrected our information and informed us that, actually, the ferry would leave at 11am, not 2pm, as the internet had told us.  “Whew!  Lucky we spoke to the locals and cleared THAT one up!”, we thought.  “We would have missed the ferry if we hadn’t spoken to Benjamin!”.  Again, we patted ourselves on the back for our ingenuity and ability to sift the facts from the fiction.  We decided that whoever was in charge of the website page for “Information on how to get to Banda Island” really needed to find the time to update their information.  It could have caused us a lot of problems if we’d listened to them!

The morning that we were due to leave, we looked for Benjamin.  He was nowhere to be seen, and had been replaced by Shalom, the surly man who was still in a big fat sulk with us.  This was no doubt due to the fact that he was still reeling from the bollocking he’d received from Glen two nights prior.  Glen had phoned him and crapped all over him from a dizzy height, after he had received a message from us letting him know that there wasn’t anybody waiting for us at the airport, as Colin, Shalom’s brother, had promised him there would be.

We explained to Surly Shalom that we just needed to confirm that Benjamin had arranged our taxi to the ferry port, as requested the previous day.  Shalom looked in his tatty, worn, over-used exercise book, scanned the scrawled handwritten notes, and said that no, no taxi had been arranged for us by Benjamin.  He said he would do it for us.  We told him we needed to get to Banda Island and needed to board the ferry at 11am (information courtesy of Benjamin) so we would like the taxi to get us there by 10.30am to be on the safe side.  “But why you want to leave so early?” he asked.  “That ferry doesn’t leave at 11am.  It leaves at 2pm” he informed us.  “Hah”‘ we thought!  “Thank goodness for good old Shalom!  He may be moody, but at least he knows what’s going on around here!” The fact that his estimated time of departure corresponded precisely with the information that we had read on the internet filled us with confidence in him.  “Oh, well, Benjamin is very sweet and tries hard”, we thought, “but he’s obviously a bit clueless as to how things work around here”.

We booked our cab through Shalom and then set about repacking our bags.  Shalom had said that we could leave some bags in the storeroom, so we divided everything up into things we needed for three days on Banda Island and things we could leave behind (Glen’s things, Christmas presents, hair dryers, etc).  Machellie invented an ingenious way of using the SAA tags on our suitcases to label the bags we were leaving behind, and marked them clearly with our names and Glen’s Ugandan cellphone number.  Our bags were deposited in the storeroom at the top of the steep steps and we gave ourselves a pat on the back once again.  We really were so organized and efficient!  We set off to explore Entebbe some more, now that we had everything so sorted and tickety-boo.  We bought some supplies from the local supermarket (Machellie had visions of making us a delicious lunch on the ferry which involved avocado, cheese, lemon and bread).  After a productive and enjoyable morning shopping in the dust and heat we stopped off at our local, the Red Rooster (situated at the end of our road) for a Nile Special (as the large red, black and yellow signs all around us kept reminding us; “Nile Special – you’ve earned it”) and to kill some time before heading back to Entebbe Backpackers to get into our cab.

After a perfectly pleasant drive, Amir, our tab driver pulled up to the ferry station at 1.45pm.  Perfect timing, we thought.  However, as we got out of the cab we noticed that the ferry was already full.  And I use the term “full” lightly.  More like jam-packed.  Like packed pilchards in a tin.  In fact, as full as a buffalo’s bum.  People standing around on the jetty saw us getting out of the car and started running towards us.  No sooner had we hauled our suitcases and bags out of the boot, than they were snatched up by eager men who sprinted along with them and hurled them onto the front of the ferry.  We broke into a trot and began chasing our luggage onto the ferry.  There was a sense of great urgency in the air as all the people on the ferry started yelling at us to “Run!  Hurry up!  You make us wait!  We want to leave!”.  We were a bit alarmed that suddenly time seemed to have sped up and everything was happening in fast-forward motion.  Why were all these people shouting at us to hurry up?  We were early, weren’t we?  It was still fifteen minutes until our departure time!  Why was everyone in such a rush to get going?  What had happened to good old laid-back African time??

As we were running onto the ferry, Machellie paid our cab driver and, after he offered to give us a lift again on our return, I let him scrawl his number in the back of the book I had borrowed from a friend (sorry about the defacing of your book, Taryn!  There was no time to search for paper at that stage of the game!”), as he was such a good driver and such a pleasant man. He was running next to me and writing at the same time. We leapt onto the ferry just as they closed the gate behind us and the ferry began to move.  The captain began shouting at everyone to move forward towards the centre of the ferry and to all move further to the right.  I began to panic as the distance between me and my suitcase was increasing at an alarming rate. Or, to be more accurate, the distance between me and where I thought my suitcase was, was increasing… I wasn’t even sure at that stage that my suitcase had made it on to the ferry.  Machellie assured me that she had seen someone hurling it on and I did some deep breathing exercises and tried to get rid of the images I now had in my head of my suitcase sitting abandoned on the dock of the bay in the manner of Otis Redding.

I surveyed our surroundings.  We were packed between over three hundred Ugandans and their offspring. They had obviously been to Entebbe to do their Christmas shopping (it was Christmas Eve) and were laden down with bags.  I spotted only two other Mzungu’s.  One of whom, as Machellie pointed out, was wearing a long, black wig.  I watched in fascination to see if the wig would survive being blown about in the wind.  It did.  Unable to move anything other than my eyeballs at this stage due to space constraints, I looked down at my feet.  Each person on the ferry had just enough space to put their feet.  In one position.  There was a live chicken in a plastic bag close to my foot.  I noticed a little girl with sad eyes next to me.  I shared my water with her and gave some to the chicken too.  It was blazing hot and the chicken’s tongue was hanging out of the corner of its beak while he panted like a dog.  I had never thought of chickens as having tongues before. I thought that if the chicken was going to spend his Christmas Day being served as lunch, the least I could do was make sure his last moments on earth were not spent dying of thirst.

We began asking people on the ferry if we were going to Banda Island.  Just to confirm.  Put our minds at rest.  It had been quite a stressful time, but at least we hadn’t missed the ferry.  At least they had waited for us.  We were on our way.  Everything was going to be okay.  “Banda Island?”, they repeated. “We go to Ssese Islands”.  “Whew!” I thought.  “Banda Island was part of the Ssese Islands.  There were 84 of them in total.  I knew.  I had done my research and had all the facts at my fingertips.  I was organized and in control.  “Hang on … Did you say EIGHTY-FOUR islands?”  I asked some more people.  Yes, Ssese Islands.  We go to Ssese Islands.”, came the standard reply.  “Yes, but WHICH ONE are we going to?  Are we going to BANDA Island?” I asked hopefully.  I was beginning to feel waves of panic starting to engulf me.  “Don’t know Banda Island. We go to Ssese Island” they kept repeating.  I felt the waves grow larger and did some more deep breathing to prevent a full-on panic attack.  It was confirmed.  We were on the wrong ferry.  Headed for the wrong island.  We didn’t know exactly which one yet, but it wasn’t Banda.  Sandwiched between over three hundred Ugandans and a thirsty chicken.  In the blazing heat. And there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

I got my phone out to contact my big brother Glen, who lives on another island in Uganda. When I looked at my phone, there was already a message from him asking “Where are you? They are all waiting for you and Vincent says he has to leave”.  There was also an email from Petra (who by this stage was languishing in Holland), saying “Vincent waited for you till 2.15pm and then had to leave.  When would you like to come to Banda.  The Christmas schedule is a bit different.  The best thing is to contact Andrew on his cellphone number”.  The cellphone number was listed below.  I sent Glen a desperate Whattsup message and asked him to phone Andrew and to tell him not to give our room away.  I told him we would get there somehow.

After a few hours of standing in the same spot and my back beginning to complain, I had a brainwave.  I was standing close to a car that was parked on the ferry.  People had begun to redistribute themselves by this stage, so it was now possible to move.  Very carefully and slowly.  I squeezed my way past people towards the parked car, careful not to stand on anyone’s toes.  Especially the chicken’s.  I slithered down and stretched my legs under the car.  What heaven to be able to take the weight off my feet and stretch my legs out at last!  I leant my back against a suitcase, took out my borrowed book and spent a very pleasant time reading.  The rear bumper acted as a shelf.  I tried not to think about the fact that I couldn’t see my suitcase.  Or that we were headed for the wrong island.  Nothing we could do about it now, other than jumping overboard and swimming back to shore, amid the crocodiles and the hippos.

We arrived at the island at 5.15pm after a three and a half hour journey.  It was abuzz with activity.  UB40 blared out from the loudspeakers, announcing “Here I am” and worrying about rats in the kitchen. Never mind rats in the kitchen.  What were WE a-gonna do?!!!  I instructed Machellie in Afrikaans “act confident and don’t look lost or as if you don’t know where you are”.  Actually, I have to say that we never felt unsafe or threatened by anyone for even one second.  Everyone, with the exception of a few boda boda drivers who asked us whether we needed a lift somewhere, left us alone.  Or smiled benevolently at us.  We explained our predicament to one of the men who came to ask us if we needed help.  He quoted us an astronomical figure to take us to Banda Island so we rejected his offer.  UB40 pleaded with us not to break his heart.

We decided to drag our suitcases and sit down to regroup and come up with a strategy.  We found a comfortable grassy bank and weighed up our options, while a lovely Friesland cow loped up to us and eaves-droppped on our conversation while chewing the cud and looking at us with large, liquid brown eyes under a fringe of long black lashes.  We came to the conclusion that we had to find somebody to take us to Banda Island.  The island we were now sitting on was full of people.  Although none of them appeared to be Mzungu’s like us.  The music seemed to be getting louder by the minute.  UB40 was now singing the praises of red, red wine.  I would have killed for a glass, but had a sip of my water instead as I had to keep a clear head.  We knew that all the rooms in the various resorts on the island would be fully booked.  There were tents erected on every available piece of grass and sand.  I considered the option of hiring a fishing boat for the night to sleep in.  But then I remembered our heavy suitcases and imagined myself having to sleep with my wallet, passport, yellow fever inoculation record, I-pad, Mom’s binocs and Dad’s camera clutched to my bosom.  I didn’t think I’d get much sleep.  Plus, we had already paid for our first night in Banda Island.  In a cabin.  On a bed.

I said a quick prayer and asked God to send us someone to help us. Someone kind.  Someone helpful.  Someone of sound Christian character, with a strong moral compass and a compassionate heart.  So He did.  He sent me Joseph.

I noticed Joseph standing on the grass chatting to some of his friends.  I walked up to him and introduced myself and explained our predicament.  He was ever so concerned, friendly and amiable.  He said that his brother had a fishing boat, and sent someone to go and fetch him.  The brother arrived after twenty minutes and agreed to take us to Banda Island.  Machellie hopped onto the back of a boda boda and disappeared into the ether to go and exchange our US dollars to Ugandan shillings.  She came back after a while and announced that she had taken the wrong purse with her.  She retrieved the correct purse, hopped back on and disappeared again. Joseph’s brother went off to fetch some fuel.  I sat down on the grassy bank with Joseph and his friend and made movies of them on my I-pad.  Joseph was intrigued.  However, he seemed even more interested in the block of Gouda cheese which he could see poking out of our bag.  He asked if he could touch it and asked me what it was.  He had never seen or tasted cheese.  I pointed to the cow and explained that the cheese came from the cow.  He looked a bit alarmed so I gave him a quick domestic science lesson – milk, butter, cheese. Joseph struggled to pronounce my name.  Eventually he squealed delightedly, “Oh!!! Keeeeeeerrrrrreeeeeeyyyy!! You are R-Keeeeeeerrrrrrrreeeeeeeyyyyy!” (R. Kelly is a black, American, male, Rhythm and Blues singer-songwriter).  I agreed that I was R-Keeeeerrrry.  It was just easier that way.

I asked Joseph what the island we were on was called.  According to his information, we had landed on Kalangala Island.  I vaguely recognized the name from my internet research as being one of the 84 Ssese Islands.  Machellie recognised a few of the resorts we had emailed while doing our research from SA. I can remember Mirembe Beach Resort as being one of them.

The fishing boat pulled up next to us. To Machellie’s consternation, I asked her whether I could give the cheese to Joseph to thank him for his efforts.  The delicious lunch she’d had all planned for us on the ferry had never really had a chance to get off the ground, under the circumstances.  I held the precious block of cheese out to Joseph and said “we’d like you to have this.  As a thank you for helping us”.  He looked delighted and threw the block of cheese to a passing motorcyclist, instructing him to keep it safe until his return (I presume.  I don’t speak Lugandan). It was 7.30pm and the sun was steadily going down.  We were ready to go.  I looked at the driver of the boat and noticed he was holding something in his hand.  Something very large, glistening and sharp.  I pointed out the knife to Machellie and asked her in Afrikaans what she thought it was for.  She jokingly replied it was to cut our throats. I let out a slightly hysterical, nervous giggle and said another prayer.  We got into the boat, stepping mid-calf deep into water from the lake.  All the travelling doctor’s stern words of warning about not letting a drop of Lake Victoria’s water touch our skins (for fear of contracting bilharzia) came flooding into my mind.  I brushed the thought aside as, at that stage, contracting bilharzia seemed to be the least of our problems.  UB40 were singing “if it happens again, I’m leaving, I’m packing my things and gone”.

Joseph was in charge of the seating arrangement.  He positioned himself firmly next to me, his new BFF.  His other friend he put in front of us, and Machellie he placed at the very front of the boat, facing us.  The engine kicked into life.  We were off.  To Banda Island or to meet our maker wasn’t too clear.  I think we felt the odds were probably stacked at about 50/50 at this stage.  The lake was smooth as glass.  We couldn’t see the moon as it was a new moon, but our driver used the stars to navigate.  It was actually a very pleasant journey.  Except for the part when, about fifteen minutes into our journey, the engine suddenly stopped dead.  I froze and my imagination kicked into overdrive.  Here it comes, I thought.  The knife.  The gang rapes.  The slitting of throats and the throwing of bodies (ours) overboard.  Joseph reached into his pocket and handed something to the driver.  It was dark by now but I saw something shining.  He handed it to the driver.  It was the knife.  Oh no … hang about … The shiny object was making a noise.  It was a cellphone.  “Call for you!”, Joseph announced happily.  My heart slowly moved down from my throat back to its original position.  The driver concluded his telephone conversation, handed Joseph the phone back for safe-keeping, started up the engine, and we were off again.  We chatted easily to our new friends and soon relaxed and enjoyed the beauty of travelling on the water under the stars, listening to the swoosh of the water around us and we sliced through it in our little fishing boat.

Eventually, as we rounded a corner, I saw the lights of the castle on Banda Island.  We also saw a huge bonfire on the beach.  Soon we were able to make out people and dogs in the darkness, by the light of the fire. The people were all jumping up and down and clapping and cheering and the five resident dogs were all jumping up and down and barking and running around in circles.  Machellie and I started whooping and yee-haaaaaahing and laughing and almost crying with joy.  We had made it.  Alive and untouched.  I looked at my watch.  We had arrived at Banda Island at 8.45pm.  The journey had taken us exactly one hour and fifteen minutes.

We got off the boat and Machellie paid our driver (I don’t want to tell you how much, but let’s just say the tip that they gave themselves for their trouble was almost four times the cost of the fuel they used and we made their Christmas!!). We had agreed on the price beforehand after much negotiation, and, let’s face it … we didn’t exactly have any other option!  We were just so overjoyed and relieved to be there.

The Lovely Brenda, a beautiful young Ugandan girl who lives and works on the island, walked us along the beach by torchlight to our cabin, with the men of the island bringing up the rear and carrying our luggage.  The beach at Banda is a bit pebbly in parts and every step I took was agony, since my feet were covered in blisters (between the toes and on the soles of my feet), from all the walking we’d done over the past two days in the heat. I could feel every pebble and sharp shell poking the tender, blistered skin on the soles of my feet through my thin leather slip slops.  But I didn’t care.  We were almost home.

Brenda showed us to our lovely little room and we put all our stuff down.  We were just admiring the room and the tired, bedraggled old single string of gold tinsel that someone had strung up on a piece of string over our “dressing table”‘ when I felt something on my foot.  It was moving.  I looked down to find a black leech clinging to the top of my foot, sucking the blood out from between my big toe and the one next to it.  I knew that I must now be covered in flesh-eating leeches all over my body.  The travelling doctor’s stern face loomed large in my mind.  Trying to remain calm, I told Brenda that there was something on my foot.  I kept shaking my foot but the dastardly creature clung on for dear life and wouldn’t let go.  I entered the first stage of a full-blown panic attack and started screaming hysterically, “BRENDA!!!! GET IT OFF!  GET IT OOOOOOOOOFFFFFFFF!!!”, while shaking my foot and pointing at the offending creature. Brenda shone her torch on my foot.  In the light, the leech turned into a plaster, half unstuck.  It flapped once last time and then stayed still.

We would have to get used to living rough.  We were now island dwellers.

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