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Braving the roads to shop in Kampala

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Ever wondered what it’s like to shop in Kampala, Uganda? Is it really as chaotic as it looks in all those documentaries? In a word, yes, but it’s worth every minute…

We’re stuck.

We’ve seen busy traffic before, of course. I mean, I’ve been to India, Julie’s been to Vietnam, we know what busy roads look like.

But nothing we’ve seen can compare to this. We’re in Kampala, Uganda, the final days of our three-week trip through Uganda, a sister’s-only adventure. We came to volunteer at a school in the remote town of Buliisa, close to Lake Albert and the DRC border. But at the last minute we thought we should do some sight-seeing as well, and of course that led to us checking out the country’s capital city – Kampala. We’ve visited the Ziwa Rhinocerous Sanctuary, been on a wildlife safari at Murchison Falls, and trekked for gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. But for some reason, instead of checking out the local tourist attractions – you know museums, galleries – we’ve decided to shop in Kampala.

And so, here we are. We look in awe as a stream of traffic passes before us, there is no room between the cars to even try to manoeuvre our way across.

Motor bikes crowd the busy roads in Kampala, Uganda.

Finally a man appears before us, he looks one way then the other. We watch, holding our breath while we wait to see what he does. Julie, my sister and travel companion in Uganda, quietly grabs hold of his sleeve, just below his elbow, I grab her arm and we wait. The man feels the gentle tug at his side and turns to look at us.

“Oh,” he mouths gently. “I see.”

There is a slight giggle, a nod of the head, recognition that we need his help to get across this busy street, to negotiate the traffic.

When we had first pulled into Kampala from Bwindi the previous day, we were amazed by the sheer number of cars on the road. We had driven through the back streets, trying different routes to avoid the traffic as much as possible. And now, here we are in the middle of it.

We wait for our good Samaritan, watch his every move, and when he takes off, we do too, we stick tight to his side as he guides us through the vehicles and when we get to the other side, he gives us a quick wave as we gush our thanks and he is lost to the crowds.

And all this just to go shopping. You see, we’ve figured, rightly or wrongly, that we should be able to get some good bargains in Kampala. And we really want to check out the clothes here, see what the shops are like. But we’re struggling to find anything to buy. We can’t even quite work out how to enter the shops. We’ve seen the odd bric-a-brac shop here and there, plenty of buckets and kitchen items for sale. And then, just before we had negotiated the street crossing, we had spied some clothes, hanging from the balcony on the second storey of the building opposite.

And so we made a beeline, well, a delayed beeline as we tried to negotiate the road crossing first.

Braving the streets in Kampala

When we get to the side we want to be on we search for the women’s clothing shop. Still more bric-a-brac shops. We find an entranceway, into what, we’re not really sure, and find ourselves in an atrium. There are shops around us, not women’s clothing, but shops. We walk up the stairs, tentatively, unsure whether we’re in the right place, whether we should even be in here. And then we spy the women’s clothes, hanging from the end of a corridor. There is no shop as such, just a pile of clothes at the end of the corridor, spilling out onto the balcony.

We can’t work out whether the clothes are old or new, but we don’t really care. Isn’t this part of the fun of shopping in a new country? You have no idea of the labels, no expectation, you just find what you like.

The sales assistants, two young men, are eager to help us. We are the only women in the ‘store’. We spend more than an hour trying on clothes, and the sales assistants pull out every dress they think will fit us. In the end we buy three each, they are cheap, about $4 each, and we move on.

Back out on the streets and we decide it is too much hard work to find women’s clothes. We’re happy with our purchases and so we hail a boda boda (motorcycle) and make our way to the tourist market to pick up some souvenirs.

It’s our last day in Uganda and so far, we haven’t bought any local items. We’ve been too busy volunteering or sightseeing to even think about shopping. Plus, that’s what we left these last couple of days for.

But Kampala is not an easy city to navigate. It’s big, hot, and makes no sense to us. Plus there are those roads to contend with!

When we get to the markets, we know we’ve succumbed to being tourists. But we don’t care, we are, after all, tourists here. The market stallholders call out to us as we wander around, urging us to buy in their shops, asking us what we are looking for. But they aren’t aggressive and often, their comments are almost half-hearted.

We buy a couple of trinkets, some soapstone animals, and head back to the hotel in time for dinner. On the back of a boda boda, of course. Now that we’ve learned to cross the roads, we can brave just about anything.

Kampala – Fast Facts

We stayed at Villa Kololo, a beautiful hotel that felt like it was tacked on to a lovely restaurant.

We were here for two nights.

Was it long enough? We were here to volunteer in Buliisa so weren’t really worried about spending too much time in Kampala. Uganda is a stunning country, so it’s worth exploring, but two nights in Kampala was long enough.

Highlights: The people! Uganda is one of the friendliest countries we’ve ever visited. The people watching, it’s fascinating – so many people all in one city, it’s chaotic, it’s exhausting but somehow it all works.

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