Riding a Bajaj 100 in Uganda

Near the end of the month, I wrapped up the last of my work and managed to grab a few free days. I woke early and headed down to Flavours and ordered a Castle Lite and sat at the bar. By now I was on a first name basis with the waitresses, and they chattered back and forth with me in singsong African English.

I wanted a motorcycle to ride, so I asked the waitress if she knew anyone who’d be up for renting me one for the day.

Mary took my phone and dialed out a number with impressive alacrity. I haven’t been able to manipulate a keypad that fast since I sold my Motorola Razr during college and upgraded to a phone with a full keyboard. These little ten dollar Nokias were everywhere throughout Africa and worked flawlessly. The battery would last a solid week and never, even hours out into the depths of the savannah, would I find myself without coverage.

She talked in rapid-fire Luganda to a friend and hung up. The next few minutes were a blur of quick phone calls, texts, call-backs, answers, and calls to friends of friends. I stood there, nursing a Castle Lite, trying to process the flurry of communication that was happening right in front of me.

“You meet him at Baroda Junction tomorrow morning. Ten?”

“Ten in the morning?”

“Yes. You meet him at ten.” She handed the phone back and I pocketed it. The casualness of the transaction would have bothered me at any other time or place, but you learn to take things in stride. I finished off the beer and hopped a boda for my guesthouse and spent the evening finishing up a project.

I woke up early and went into town for a coffee. I hadn’t heard anything more about the motorbikes and I was expecting it to fall through. I asked around for directions to Baroda Junction and, unsurprisingly, nobody had heard of the place. I went back to the Source for more coffee, and precisely at ten o’clock my phone buzzed. I could barely understand the waitress’s pidgin but gathered that she was at Baroda Junction and was waiting on me.

After a few minutes of deciphering mostly-broken directions, I figured out that Baroda Junction was only a couple blocks away, and so I walked down and found Mary standing impatiently upon the sidewalk. She leads me down a smaller road to a small brick house. She fetches a man who looks to be forty or fifty. A little toddler holds on to his leg, and the man says the kid’s name is Samson.

He pulls around the motorcycle, and it’s a sight. Nearly every boda driver in Uganda drives the exact same motorcycle: a Bajaj Boxer 100. All are in various stages of disrepair, but this one had been to hell and back again. I sat on it and pushed it back and forth and wondered what I was getting myself into.

“The front does not brake,” the man said, pointing to the brake lever which was hanging loosely off the handlebar. “But the foot it does brake.”

I stepped off the motorcycle and eyed it well. I gave it a quick go-over and figured out that the headlight, turn signals, horn, odometer, and speedometer didn’t work either. And I hadn’t even started it yet.

I asked the man if he had a helmet, and he looked at me as if I was a foreign idiot (accurately enough). He sent someone off to find one, and when I asked the price he told me 40,000 shillings. Seems a lot, I know, but at the current exchange rate that was somewhere near $16.

I gave him 40,000 shillings.

“You top up,” he said, pointing to the gas tank. He motioned towards the nearest station, a few blocks away.

“I’ll be right back,” I told him.

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It took a few times to kick the motorcycle to life, but I managed to steer into traffic and somehow survive my way to the petrol station. I join the queue of boda drivers waiting to be filled. When I finally push up to the pump, the woman attendant leans against it and gives me a look of utter sassy disdain. I don’t know why. I guess because I’m an expat puttering around on a rented Bajaj Boxer 100. I have her fill it up and it comes to the grand total of $3.

I putter back to the man’s house, and by now a little group of Africans has gathered. The man, his son, another man, and Mary standing right on the curb. I pull up and Mary hops on the bike.

“Wait,” I say.

“But we are driving?” she says.

I should have known. I’ve been co-opted into an American boyfriend. “I don’t think I can drive well enough,” I said. “I’m not used to driving on the left.”

The man hands me a helmet. It’s battered, mostly strapless and the visor is scratched and yellowed. I put it on my head and I can barely see through it. I take it off and turn around to address the situation with Mary. “I’m a bad boda driver. It’s dangerous! We’ve only got one helmet!”

It was mostly a lie, of course, but I didn’t know what else to resort to in order to get her off the bike. I’m not sure what assumptions would fly through the orphanage woman’s head if I buzzed past her on the sidewalk with an African girl’s arms wrapped around my waist, but I didn’t want to find out. Besides, I wanted a day of independent freedom. I’d spent the last month socializing. This was my alone time. This was my special place.

She ended up getting off.

I kickstarted the bike and set the helmet on top of my head and tried to fasten the straps. It sat awkwardly. I drove off with a wave to Samson and, to be honest, the helmet didn’t last very long. It didn’t fit, and when I tried to push the filthy blurry visor up it simply fell down again. I stopped and had a brief moral dilemma. I’m a firm believer in helmets. The last time I’d ridden a bike was that Yamaha dirt bike, ten years ago, and the last action I’d pulled on it was doing some sort of jump which ended up with the bike on top and me underneath, concussed. I can’t remember much of the rest of that day, but I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet I’d have more problems than temporary amnesia.

I hadn’t ridden a bike since.

So was I to wear this helmet, an item that might potentially save my life, or was I to be able to see, a thing that also might potentially save my life? I made the decision that seeing was better than bleeding, so I put the helmet in between the handlebars (I couldn’t see the speedometer, but it wasn’t as if it worked anyway) and kept riding the claptrap.

So far it was going pretty well, though, even though the clutch was badly messed up. It kept locking up every time I downshifted into first gear, and everything else on the bike seemed to be hanging on for dear life. I figured out that the best speed was the fastest speed, and I also figured out that being in town would get me killed very, very quickly. So I took a few turns and headed towards the edge of town.

I turned onto Main Street, finally getting a good grasp of the bike, and I then had one of the rare moments in my life where things become undeniably magical.

It worked out perfectly. Here I am, knockoff Wayfarers shielding my eyes from the glistening sun, jacket on, Diesel boots, helmetless, hair flying in the wind, and walking down the sidewalk was Inge the beautiful Norwegian aid worker. She did a double-take, and it’s one of the proudest moments of my life. I gave a sexy nod of recognition and flew down the street out of her life forever.

For the rest of the day, I drove. It was exhilarating, and if I ever get a chance to go to Jinja again I’m going to do the exact same thing…rent a motorcycle and drive until the sun begins to set.

First I’d ventured out to a road that ran along Lake Victoria, and suddenly arrived in a shipping district of sorts. Rows of shipping containers lined the shore, and trucks started coming out of nowhere. Suddenly, the engine dies. As it’s coasting to a stop, I shift into first gear. Bad decision.

The clutch locked up, and I ground to a stop and groaned to myself and tried to kick it into neutral. And then, an angry horn. I look up and a lorry is barreling towards me, driver holding down the horn, waving at me through the window. I try to push it out of the road, but the wheel is locked up and it’s nearly impossible to push. And then, a dozen black angels descended upon me and I’m still in a daze when I remember what happened.

From the side of the road (from literally nowhere…a hedge? a tree?) a group of Africans ran towards me yelling in Luganda and pointing towards the truck, still barreling towards me. They pull me off the bike, pick it up, get it off the road, and set it down. The truck blows past.

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None of them speak English, but they’re pointing at the bike and motioning for me to get on. I do so, and try to kickstart it. It’s still locked up. One of them pulls me off and literally kicks the gearbox with gusto until it frees up. And then one of them shows me the spark plug wires, which are dangling and frayed. One of them produces telephone wire (yes…telephone wire) from nowhere and twist the wires back to the plug terminals, starts it for me, and they send me on my way with cheers and fanfares.

I rode out along the edge of the lake to the beginning of the Nile. I found a steep footpath that led down the side of the hill to the foot of a large steel bridge. Welded to the underside of it was a rickety foot bridge, maybe four or five feet across, all the way to the other side of the Nile. I pushed the bike up the steep metal slope and then stopped in the middle to take in the view. Within seconds an African had run up to me, arms flailing, worried to death. He pointed to the bank, up the hill from which I’d just come.

“Soldiers watch,” he said. “Security.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Don’t stop! No picture. Soldiers take you jail.”

I didn’t know whether he was correct or not, but his alarm seemed heartfelt and so I put away my camera and kept pushing my bike. On the descent, I started the bike and idled it down to the other side. And then I found myself faced with a ridiculous path upwards.

It would have been difficult even with a real dirt bike. It was treacherous even on foot: three or four hundred feet of nearly straight up, crooked ravines and roots of trees and a dozen African women loaded down with rice and brush and bags of clothing. But behind me were the nebulous Ugandan soldiers, and the choice was pretty clear. I was going to force this Bajaj Boxer 100 up this path or die trying. A Ugandan jail is the last place I want to spend a night or two. It took all the engine had to get it up. I kept it in first gear, and if the tachometer had worked the needle would have been pegged on the redline. A few times I nearly took a tumble, but I made it up the crevices in spite of everything.

For the rest of the day I rode through the countryside. I drove through small villages, down long roads, through fields of sugar cane, past breweries and auto shops and long lines of lorries. I began to turn back towards Jinja, and found myself on the main Kampala-Jinja highway. It’s a pretty decent road with a few pothole exceptions, and I maxed the bike out in an attempt to keep up with the automobile traffic.

I went over the Nalubaale Power Station, the first dam of the Nile River. In some odd swap of power, it’s controlled by Egyptian authorities who use it to manipulate the flow of water into Egypt. The stretch of road from the dam to Jinja is one of the best roads in Uganda, and I used this as an excuse to zip along through traffic as fast as possible. I hit the massive roundabout west of town, probably one of the most frightening and deadliest three-lane maelstroms of death you’ve ever encountered, and then rode into town and found Ika Junction and pulled to a stop in front of the bike owner’s house.

I was paranoid that Mary would be there, waiting expectantly for her American lover. The sigh of relief when I realized she’d left was the loudest & most genuine sigh of relief ever sighed on earth.